The 196th Country

A small world it may be, but there are still places that come as a surprise on the map.  Benin, for instance.

Collin Street Bakery fruitcakes have found their way to 196 countries.  Up until Novembr 7,1996, though, the tally was one country shy.  That was the day the Bakery shipped an Original DeLuxe Fruitcake to a Peace Corps volunteer named Christopher Robbins.  He was working in Toukountouna, Benin.

Being an artist, the one-time University of Virginia student had drawn a map of where Benin was when he posted his plea for a fruitcake.  Afrique de L'Ouest, his return address read: the West African coast.

Christopler had joined the Peace Corps in 1995.  He had been studying at a Japanese University the year before and had taken a trip to Thailand, where he came upon a public campground that Peace Corps volunteers had created from an island prison. 

"I was amazed that jobs like that existed," says Christopher, who now lives with his wife in Serbia.  He decided then and there to join the Peace Corps, and he knew quite clearly what he could contribute: "the ability to work with limited and constantly changing resources, a creative approach to problem-solving, an open mind to alternative perspectives, a hard work ethic, and an acceptance of the fact that the value systems I grew up with are not absolute or internationally applicable."

What he wasn't so clear about was where he was going to end up.  He knew he wanted to work in Africa.  "Beyond that," he says, "I had an outdated atlas and a limited sense of geography."  (This was before the days of Google Earth and Mapquest.)  Peace Corps officials gave him a choice between the Central African Republic and Benin.

When he consulted his atlas, he found the Central African Republic described as the Empire of Central Africa.  I don't want to live in an empire, he recalls thinking.  Plus, the country was landlocked.  "Benin seemed to have a coastline, so I figured if things got really bad there, at least I could escape to the beach," he says.

Besides, the University of Virgina had curated a show of Benin Bronzes, so this was surely a sign, right?  (Except, as Christopher later discovered, that was a different Benin - Benin City, in Nigeria.)

But never mind that it was this little-known country.  Christopher quickly fell in love with his work, the people he was serving, and Benin.  So much so that he got a deed to a small scrap of land and built his home there, by hand, fashioning mud and straw and sticks into an artful hut.

It was all he needed, but it lacked, as he says, a homey touch.

One day, on one of his two-hour cycling trips to the largest nearby town, Natitingou, Christopher called in at the office of a fellow volunteer and spied a Collin Street Bakery catalog.  How did such mail find its way all the way from Corsicana, Texas to Natitingou, Benin, Christopher wanted to know.  My mother sent it, was the reply.

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Christopher decided then and there that he wanted one too.  "It just seemed like it would be a very homey thing, to come back to my mud hut and find an unexpected catalog of fruitcake," he says.

Even though he was never homesick in Benin, somehow having this "comforting thing" of a fruitcake catalog made it all the better.  And even thoug the Bakery staff dispatched not only the catalog but the fruitcake, what was perhaps the most important was that Christopher had, in a manner of speaking, put Benin on the map.

Benin turned out to be the better choice of countries for another reason, and it had nothing to do with the beach.  While Christopher was there he met a Peace Corps volunteer named Shelly, who was serving in a village about four bicycle hours from Christopher's.  He was used to biking the two hours to Natitingou, but "after I met her, I decided I needed the extra two hours of exercise," he says.

Shelly is now his wife.