Rachel Décoste landed in West Africa’s Republic of Benin in August 2018, anticipating an vital journey of self-discovery, however not predicting the extent to which the journey would change her life.
On her first day exploring Benin, Rachel requested a passerby for instructions. Two weeks later, Rachel and the stranger had been engaged. Inside six months, they had been married.
Rachel grew up in Ottawa, Canada, the daughter of Haitian dad and mom who’d immigrated to Canada within the late Nineteen Sixties. As an grownup, Rachel relocated to Washington DC for school, later working for a bipartisan tech program related to the US Congress.
Rachel liked this job, she liked the range of Washington and liked working in public service. When her US visa was up for renewal, Rachel, then in her early 40s, figured she’d work remotely for just a few months earlier than returning to DC.
However quite than working from Canada, she hatched a plan to arrange her desk additional afield.
Earlier that yr, Rachel had submitted her DNA to a web based ancestry website. Rachel had lengthy recognized she was the descendent of enslaved Africans, however till she received the outcomes, she hadn’t recognized the place her forebears had lived. Now, she had a listing of nations the place she had roots: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana and Benin.
“DNA assessments for a descendant of enslaved Africans has very deep significance for us,” Rachel tells CNN Journey. “Despite the fact that it’s not a exact science, while you get the map of the place your ancestors got here from, it’s an emotional journey.”
Rachel arrived in Benin in direction of the tip of her 5 month distant working journey. She’d already visited the opposite international locations on her checklist, and her African journey was shaping as much as be a rare journey of self-discovery. Nonetheless, Rachel didn’t know what to anticipate from Benin.
“Actually, I don’t know if I may discover Benin Republic on a map earlier than this,” she says.
She booked a room in a mattress and breakfast within the port metropolis of Cotonou, planning to remain there for 2 weeks – working from the B&B and exploring the nation in her spare time.
Following a few days settling in, Rachel ventured out for the primary time. She deliberate to go to Ouidah, as soon as probably the most energetic slave buying and selling ports in Africa. She anticipated this may be a shifting and thought-provoking expertise.
“I’m positive that one among my ancestors handed by there, simply due to my DNA check,” says Rachel.
Exiting her room, Rachel searched round for the supervisor of her mattress and breakfast – she was searching for steerage on how greatest to journey to Ouidah.
“She’s nowhere to be discovered. After which I search for the safety guard, and the safety guard is on break.”
Rachel figured her subsequent greatest wager was asking a passerby outdoors, so she opened the gates and glanced round.
The primary particular person she noticed was a person about to get on a motorbike, parked simply outdoors.
Rachel greeted the stranger in French – as a French Canadian, French is her first language and it’s additionally the official language of Benin – and politely requested him the best way to get to Ouidah.
“It’s important to go to a sure intersection downtown, the place all of the bush taxis are,” defined the stranger. “You discover the taxi going to your vacation spot, you pay to your seat, and you then’ll get there.”
He began passing on instructions to the intersection, however then, realizing they had been a bit difficult, modified his tune.
“If you’d like. I can deliver you there, it’s about 10 minutes away,” he urged, gesturing to his bike.
It was about 9 a.m. Rachel was cautious of trusting somebody she didn’t know, however she determined she was unlikely to come back to hurt in broad daylight. She agreed.
“I take an opportunity, hop on the again of his motorbike, no helmet,” she recollects.
The motorbike-riding stranger was Honoré Orogbo, a single father and enterprise proprietor in his thirties who’d lived in Cotonou all his life and simply occurred to be passing by that morning.
When Rachel opened the mattress and breakfast door, Honoré had simply completed consuming some breakfast he’d grabbed from a close-by avenue kiosk.
From the skin, Rachel’s lodging wasn’t clearly a B&B. Honoré says he assumed she was the proprietor of the home. It was solely when she requested for instructions that Honoré realized Rachel was a customer.
When Rachel and Honoré arrived on the taxi rank in Cotonou metropolis heart, they realized the one heading to Ouidah was fairly empty. Honoré defined it will be a while earlier than it departed – the driving force wouldn’t depart till the taxi was full.
Rachel was disheartened. She didn’t have time to attend round – she wished to spend the entire day in Ouidah with out feeling rushed, and to securely return to Cotonou earlier than sunset.
Sensing her disappointment, Honoré got here up with a suggestion. He had a pal in Ouidah he’d been hoping to go to – whereas he hadn’t been planning to go that day, he may, he had a day without work.
“I’m like ‘Cool. I’ll pay for gasoline. Let’s go,’” recollects Rachel.
Simply over an hour later, they arrived in Ouidah.
“He exhibits me the best way to get again – the place the bush taxis are that I can get again that afternoon – and he exhibits me the place the Slave Museum is. And I’m like, ‘Okay, good to go. Thanks, sir,’” recollects Rachel.
However earlier than they had been on account of go their separate methods, Rachel requested Honoré if he wished to get brunch. She wished a chew to eat earlier than she began her tour – and increasing the invite to Honoré felt just like the well mannered alternative, he’d gone out of his means to assist her, in spite of everything.
Honoré agreed, touched by the gesture. The 2 sat all the way down to eat.
Rachel was conscious that she was a lady touring alone, and whereas Honoré had been nothing however well mannered and respectful, he was nonetheless a stranger, so she instructed him she was married.
She additionally didn’t share particulars of her job, or her life within the US. However she did clarify how she hoped to journey round Benin over the approaching days. She requested Honoré if he had any associates or contacts who labored as chauffeurs or tour guides, and who is likely to be all for escorting her round over the following couple of days. She figured that is likely to be simpler than counting on taxis.
Honoré contacted a tour information pal, however he was totally booked
“So I mentioned, ‘Effectively, how about you? Are you able to be my escort? You helped me out this morning, can I simply pay you to try this for 3 days?’” recollects Rachel.
“No, I’m not a I’m not a tour information,” mentioned Honoré. “I don’t know my nation’s historical past by coronary heart, and that’s not what I do.”
Rachel backtracked. She didn’t actually need a tour information – there could be specialists in any respect the historic websites she deliberate to go to – she simply wanted a experience.
After a little bit of forwards and backwards, Honoré agreed to drive Rachel.
“When she insisted, I mentioned ‘Why not?’” Honoré recollects at the moment.
He wished to assist Rachel, Honoré says. She appeared like a “good particular person,” based mostly on the way in which she’d approached him, the way in which she’d requested him questions and the way in which she’d invited him to brunch.
The 2 agreed Honoré would drive Rachel round for the following few days, beginning that day in Ouidah, and Rachel would pay him for his companies.
For the remainder of the week, Honoré took Rachel to Benin’s most vital websites.
Touring Benin was a strong expertise for Rachel. She says visiting the slave fort, inside Ouidah’s Museum of Historical past, “is a pilgrimage that each afro-descendant ought to go to to remind us of the cruelty that our ancestors survived.”
“I didn’t know this earlier than going there in particular person, but when Las Vegas was taking bets on the survival of enslaved Africans, the percentages of my being alive at the moment would have been slim to none,” says Rachel. “I’m a strolling, speaking miracle. I’m the ‘one %.’ I owe it to those that didn’t make it to stay my greatest life.”
Whereas touring round Benin, Rachel and Honoré talked. Whereas Rachel nonetheless didn’t disclose many particulars about her private circumstances, however she discovered herself opening as much as Honoré about her ideas and emotions. Honoré opened up in flip.
“First conversations had been about studying about myself, my household, my scenario, who I’m, who I actually am,” he says.
“We had been very open and really candid, as a result of we had been strangers and we’ll by no means see one another once more,” recollects Rachel.
She remembers being touched when Honoré defined that he didn’t have a brand new mannequin of bike as a result of he put all his cash in direction of his son’s training.
“He says ‘I’d quite have my child have these alternatives than drive a elaborate motorbike.’ And I assumed, ‘Wow, these are the values of my dad and mom.’ I noticed myself in these values,” says Rachel.
In one among their many conversations, Honoré talked about his brother was a tailor. On their fourth day collectively, Honoré took Rachel to a market to assist her purchase cloth that his brother may make right into a costume.
Rachel was overwhelmed by the selection – a lot in order that she requested Honoré to select his favorites. He opted for 2 items of colourful, brilliant Ankara cloth. The third choice was a white, grey, lace type, known as lessi. Rachel liked it, and figured the ensuing costume may very well be “applicable for a baptism or some form of big day.”
In one among their many conversations driving to Benin landmarks, Honoré talked about to Rachel that he would often journey to Lomé, the capital of the neighboring nation of Togo, when he and his associates wished an evening out.
Rachel was intrigued.
“I can’t assure that I’ll ever come again right here. It is a as soon as in a lifetime journey the place I’m getting paid whereas I’m working in another country. I need to benefit from each alternative,” she remembers pondering.
“So I mentioned, ‘Effectively, I’ve to return to work this week. However subsequent weekend, in the event you’re keen, I may get two lodge rooms and we may go to Togo collectively.”
The next weekend, Honoré took Rachel to a poetry slam evening in Lomé, adopted by a bar with stay music. They stayed out all evening.
“We’re dancing. It’s simply pure pleasure,” says Rachel.
It was round this time that Rachel began to really feel issues shift. She felt snug round Honoré in a means she’d by no means felt earlier than.
“We get alongside nice. He laughs at my jokes,” she recollects pondering. “I had a little bit of a meltdown a pair instances – which I’m not happy with – the place he didn’t freak out, as a result of often indignant Black ladies scare individuals. However he took all of it in his stride.”
Rachel even briefly met Honoré’s son.
She described the scenario in an e-mail to one among her shut associates again in Ottawa.
“I feel I feel this particular person needs to be my husband. However am I loopy? I’ve recognized this man for every week. Is that silly? Inform me if I’m loopy,” she wrote.
Her pal wrote again: “Rachel, you aren’t a silly particular person. You’ve common sense. You’re a good decide of character. If he’s the one, seize him.”
For Honoré, the journey to Togo was a turning level too.
“I feel it’s that evening that the lightning struck,” he says. “It was not lightning but it surely was a sense of affection. I feel that’s the place the sensation of affection began.”
Rachel solely had another week in Benin earlier than she was set to return to North America. She determined she had no time to waste.
“I instructed him that I actually wasn’t married. And he was very blissful to listen to that. And we received collectively,” she says.
“I used to be form of shocked,” says Honoré now. “I assumed a lady like that may in all probability have a husband.”
“Subsequent day I noticed her otherwise,” he provides. “Not like a vacationer however my soulmate. That’s how the connection began. Step-by-step.”
For the rest of Rachel’s time in Benin, Rachel and Honoré spent as a lot time collectively as they might.
On the night of Rachel’s departure, Honoré recollects sitting together with her on a seashore. He was having fun with the second, but in addition contemplating Rachel’s impending return to Canada, and what it meant for his or her burgeoning romance.
“We had been dealing with the ocean. In my head, I used to be pondering ‘the previous two weeks that I’ve spent with you, I’ve no regrets. We had a good time collectively. I used to be actually blissful to fulfill you.’”
The 2 talked concerning the future, and if and the way they might make an extended distance relationship work. They realized they had been each equally dedicated, and they also determined to get engaged, and that Honoré would relocate to North America.
It was a giant choice. They’d solely recognized each other for a few weeks. And for Honoré, emigrating had by no means been a aim. It will be a giant change for his son. However Honoré says he determined to “comply with my instincts, to comply with my coronary heart.”
In the meantime, Rachel give up her life in DC, and went again to Canada. Rachel says her associates had been shocked, however supportive and blissful when she instructed them concerning the whirlwind romance. Her dad and mom had been extra skeptical, she says. However they got here spherical after they met Honoré, and noticed how in love he was with their daughter.
Rachel returned to Benin six months later, in January 2019, for her marriage ceremony to Honoré. She wore the costume created from the white lace cloth Honoré had picked for her available in the market the summer season earlier than. It felt like destiny.
In the meantime, the couple deliberate a Canadian marriage ceremony celebration for the next yr, navigating Honoré and his son’s immigration journey within the meantime.
“I took the time through the separation to begin making ready myself mentally and psychologically for a giant transfer,” recollects Honoré. “I had to consider the massive life change that was going to be forward of me, the cultural variations. I do know individuals who went to the Americas and it wasn’t essentially simple.”
Honoré additionally ready his youngster for the transfer.
“I defined to him that, ‘My son, we are going to go to a unique nation and we are going to begin over collectively. With time, you should have new associates, you should have new cousins. You’ll have every thing you would like for. every thing that you’ve got right here you should have over there, in time.”
Honoré and his son arrived in Canada in the course of winter.
“It was actually actually actually chilly,” he recollects. “I simply didn’t perceive how chilly it may very well be outdoors. As a result of the chilly of Africa is a complete completely different kettle of fish, than the chilly in Canada.”
Nonetheless, as soon as Honoré was kitted out with Canada-appropriate boots, coat and mittens, he began adapting to life in a brand new nation.
Rachel and Honoré say they had been over the moon to be collectively. The months aside ready for Honoré’s visa approval had been lengthy.
Honoré’s son settled in in a short time, and Rachel tailored to turning into his stepmother, a task she says she loves.
“I’m embracing the problem and the fun of motherhood,” she says now.
“It’s not simple while you’ve been single since eternally to regulate to having to share your life. However he’s an excellent child.”
At this time, Honoré and Rachel stay in Ottawa. Rachel works as a range and inclusion skilled, whereas Honoré is finding out.
Rachel additionally recounted her experiences touring Africa in 2018, together with assembly Honoré, in an audiobook known as “12 months of Return: a Black Lady’s African Homecoming.”
Rachel and Honoré are additionally citing their son collectively, and run a enterprise promoting heat, Canada-winter-appropriate pajamas with African prints, known as Woke Attire.
The pandemic put a cease to their large Canadian marriage ceremony celebration plans, however they loved a small ceremony in summer season 2020.
Reflecting on their journey collectively, Honoré says their story makes him take into account that “typically you shouldn’t pressure destiny.”
He sees assembly Rachel as “future” however considers shifting the world over to be together with her as proof of the significance of trusting your intestine.
“Simply comply with your coronary heart,” he says. “Observe your coronary heart with reckless abandon.”
As for Rachel, she says their love story is a reminder to her that “it’s by no means too late.”
“You’re not too outdated to only journey alone by your self, in a rustic that you just don’t know, the place you don’t know anyone. You’re by no means too outdated to seek out love. You’re by no means too outdated to develop into a mom.
There isn’t any expiration date on alternative. And seize life by each arms. If I can do it. You’ll be able to.”