Monthly Archives: March 2009

Starting Pink BENIN, a Beninese charity (subtitled, “Why Theresa doesn’t have spare time anymore, not like she ever did”)

logos-ong-02-copie1I’ve mentioned Pink BENIN and the work we do briefly here, in emails, and on Twitter, but I haven’t really gone into a lot of detail about what’s become a huge part of my life.

How Pink BENIN got started

About six months ago, a Beninese friend of ours came back from a trip to France and told us she’d gone to remove several lumps from her breasts, and to undergo treatment for breast cancer. This woman is a woman of means and education. She studied in both France and the United States, and is persuing a successful second career as a banker. Her first, as a journalist, was equally successful. All this to say that she is rather atypical of Beninese women in that she has access to wealth and knowledge.

After finding a lump, she approached her family doctor, who told her that, while she could have the lump removed in country, he didn’t really know where to send her for further treatment. X-Ray therapy? Chemo therapy? Can that even be done in West Africa? That was all beyond him. She combed the network of Beninese doctors until she was given recommendations for a doctor in Paris. The process was humiliating, time consuming, and frustrating. Upon her return, she annonced her intention to form Pink BENIN, a non-profit dedicated to helping women survive breast cancer.

We don’t want to cure breast cancer, just stop women from dying from it so bloody often

We want to inform women and doctors that breast cancer doesn’t have to be fatal. We want to teach women how to self examen. We want to dispurse social taboos about maladies that touch women and our sexuality. We want doctors and midwives to know what breast cancer is and where to send women when they find lumps. We want to lower the cost of surgery, and bring x-ray therapy to Benin. We want mammographs in major population centers outside of Cotonou, and we want women to use them anually. We want women to form support networks that encourage self testing and early screening. Most of all, we want to lower the cost of treatment so that women don’t have to die from beast cancer.

Sounds like a lot? Well, we’re ambitious, but we’re also working with smart doctors and health professionals to design programs and projects that do as much as we can with as little funding as possible. We have several models, and while none of them will completely cover our costs, we think we’ll be able to get buy without major gov’t funding for a little while.

What do I think of all this?

Personally, as an American who started out as a Peace Corps Volunteer and ended up emmigrating, it’s a very rewarding experience to work a group of dedicated men and women who aren’t counting on int’l aid to come in and save the day. I see it as the same “volunteering” I did back home; however, this time I sit on the board of directors.

We don’t have any staff (yet), so everyone pitches in where we’re needed. It’s very hard, but it’s also a lot of fun. I’m learning a lot. I wish I knew more about running a charity, running a non-profit, the public health sector, community organizing, and herding cats. While this sort of thing hasn’t yet been done in Benin, it *has* been done throughout the developed world. There are even models as close as the Ivory Coast!

We’re doing our best to learn as much as we can as fast as we can. It’s amazing the work we’ve already done (I’ll write some follow-up posts on that, I think). We’re all terribly worried about doing more harm than good, but we’re also worried about being paralyzed by worry.

If you’re interested in what we do, check out our website at

On misunderstood directions

Traffic around Cotonou, Benin port
Image via Wikipedia

Me: I want to go to the airport.
Zem: That’ll be 500 francs.
Me: What?!? 300 francs.
Zem: No problem! 400!
Me: 300 or go away.
Zem: No. problem!

We take off in a vaguely wrong direction. 5 minutes later, I ask him “Are we going in the right direction?”

Zem: Of course!
Me: The airport’s in the other direction! We have to cross the highway first.
Zem: No problem! We’ll cross in just a minute.
Me: Are you *sure* this is the quickest way to the airport?
Zem: No problem! No problem!

We reach the highway, and we’re definitely not getting any closer to the airport. In fact, a suspicion dawns on me as we approach the Mosquée Centrale.

Me: The airport’s on the other side of town! Where are we going?
Zem: What are you talking about? We’re almost there.
Me: What?!?! (I realize what’s going on.) AIRPORT. With PLANES. Not PORT with BOATS.
Zem: Planes?
Me: Planes that fly not boats that float. I want to go where planes land and take off.
Zem: Not boats?
The AIRport, not the REGULAR port.
Zem: Planes are at the airport?
Me: You don’t speak French, do you?
Zem: No problem!
Me: Do you speak Fon? (Fon is the predominant language in the South, particularly Cotonou.)
Zem: No problem!
Me: The airport is THAT way. Let’s go.
Zem: You know airport with planes?
Me: Just go where I tell you.
Zem: No problem! On y va!

On connectivity in Benin

I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for Benin Telecoms! A conversation with Jon Gosier on Twitter a few weeks ago revealed that in Uganda, he pays literally 10 times as much a month as we do, for the same connection. Can you imagine paying $600 a month for less than 256kb/s? Neither can I.


I’m constantly frustrated by how slowly internet infrastructure develops in Benin, but at the end of the day, a pro-active government has forced a lot of positive changes in the last few years.

logo_kanakooInternet for the common man

CDMA connections for everyone! Cheap handsets combined with a vast CDMA network means that anyone and everyone can have a (relatively) cheap internet connection. And I do mean everyone. Even in the most remote villages, if you have a usb powered phone and a computer, you can connect to the internet. Users don’t even need to go through the two year process of getting a landline anymore.

CDMA connections are supposed to be 115kb/s, but generally clock in between 9.6 and 36, depending on location and time of day. They also come with a “land line” phone number.  A technician told us yesterday that Benin Telecoms recently bumped Kanakoo to 230kbps, but I’ve yet to see evidence that these connections are any faster.

A few of the newspapers we work with use Kanakoo, but if you’re in Cotonou, there are alternatives that cost about the same.  It’s better than nothing, but not yet useful for more than checking email and Google searches.

Internet for those with pull

DSL is affordable for just about everyone these days, as long as you have a land line and live near an exchange with the necessary capacity

DSL connectoins range from 128kb/s to 2Mb/s, however, even in Cotonou, there are zones (like ours), where the local exchanges just don’t hack it. And of course, it can be a two year wait for a landline.

isocelWireless solutions

WiFi has been opened up to private investors, although the state ISP has no offerings. The customer service sucks and installation is a hassle, but it’s affordable. Unfortunately, the service is curently available only in Cotonou and the environs, however, there are plans to expand the service in the future.

WiFi connections range from 128kb/s to 2Mb/s, including a special “nights and weekends only” package, which is probably the cheapest way to get connected in Benin right now. The biggest complaint I hear is that users never know when their connection is actually going to work. For the cheaper packages, it seems to be 50/50 on whether they’ll actually be able to work on a given day.  Also, their customer service is poo; however, that’s systematic in the sector, and probably unfair to pin uniquely on them.

WiMax connections are offered by the state ISP as an alternative to DSL, and is the service that we use here at the house. Installation is a particularly expensive hassle, but once you’re installed, the connection actally works most of the time. As I told @jongos, the connection is super fast at night. During the day, it works most of the time, but tends to the sluggish. Occasionally (okay, about half the time), the connection is unusable between 9am and 9pm.

WiMax is offered at 256kb/s. At night, it actually runs that quickly. During the day, we tend to see 9.6 to 128. Oh well. WiMax is available in and around Cotonou, as well as Porto Novo.

logo_mtn1The future of connectivity in Benin

Recently, the government has put pressure on GSM companies to offer internet connections, and they have! While not blazing fast, they’re more than serviceable. As the services are relatively new, they don’t work in all parts of the country. I’m hopeful that GSM will be the key to real connectivity here in Benin.

Slowly but surely, things are changing. Day-to-day, it’s a constant battle with our ISP to get problems fixed, but overall, we have a working internet connection. We can do training sessions at home, instead of in cybercafes. We can check email all day long. And, believe it or not, the most important thing is that we have acecss to the power of Google 24/7.раскрутка