Couple’s love story started in Africa



News photo
Out of Africa: Emmanuel Gbevegnon and his wife, Eriko, pose for a picture near Tokaichiba Station in Yokohama recently. KAZUAKI NAGATA
Eriko, a native of Yakushima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, was there to help with vaccination activities, using her experience as a nurse. Emmanuel, a native of the city of Cotonou in Benin, a country next to Niger with a population of about 9.3 million, was there on business. Emmanuel met Eriko at a community event to introduce Japanese culture in Niamey, Niger's capital. About three years on from that encounter, the couple married in Benin and moved to Japan in 1999. Eriko, 45, works as a nurse, while Emmanuel, 47, currently works as a translator, teacher and photojournalist. Emmanuel is also president of the nongovernmental Africa, America and Asia Reconciliation Group in Japan, which promotes intercultural dialogue and pluralism to develop a culture of peace. The group also aims to spread the role of reconciliation to wars and issues such as slavery and domination around the world. The pair live in Yokohama and have three sons, aged 3, 6 and 9. What was your first impression of your partner? Emmanuel: At the community event, she was in a group that was showing a traditional Japanese dance with a fan, which was impressive. After the performance, I realized she was speaking French better than other members, and she could give me more insight into her country. Of course, she was a beautiful lady. We don't even need to mention that! Eriko: I thought he was funny and – good faith.

What language do you use to communicate with each other and your children?

Emmanuel: We usually speak French with each other.

Eriko: Our children speak to their father in French and to their mother in Japanese.

Emmanuel: When they speak to their relatives, they speak in English, as I would like to give them opportunities to speak English.

What do you like about your partner?

Eriko: I tend to be indecisive when making decisions, but I feel like things will go smoothly if I listen to his advice. He is very straightforward and a person of foresight. Also, he has great communication skills and has so many friends.

Emmanuel: First of all as a nurse, nursing is a noble job. She was in a “silver house” (nursing home) in Japan, taking care of old people. In Africa, old people are all respected. They are seen as wise. She is committed and loves to do it. Also, I respect that she does her best with housework, like cleaning and doing laundry, when she is not working. I do it, too, but it’s good to know my partner also does it.

What would you like your partner to improve?

Emmanuel: Sometimes, the culture of silence. I think it’s not that she decides to behave so. I think this is cultural. (Although) she is improving, I would like her to speak more.

Eriko: It’s something subtle in our daily lives. He sometimes leaves his socks on the floor, although he is the one who set up a basket for socks next to the washing machine for the children so that they would not leave socks everywhere.

What is your impression of your partner’s country?

Eriko: Because Christianity is quite widespread, Benin seems calm and safe. Also, I feel that women in Benin are strong. For instance, many women work at a farmer’s market, and when I ask for some discount, they don’t accept it.

Emmanuel: Japan is a world of discovery, culturally, politically and socially. Japanese people are dedicated to work and treat customers very well. That’s something we learn from Japan. Meanwhile, I sometimes feel that they give so much for the business that they lose energy for other things when they are not at work.

When do you really enjoy being together?

Eriko: He is a really busy man, and I am quite busy with my job. So I like the times when we stay all together, including children, and are laughing together. We try to have such opportunities more.

Emmanuel: When we go to a concert together and visit friends. And of course when we are with our children at home.

How did your family react when you decided to marry?

Eriko: My parents were against me even going to Africa, because the continent is an unknown world to them. I did not tell them until the day before I left Japan. When we decided to get married, they opposed it at first, but they accepted (our marriage) when they actually met Emmanuel.

Emmanuel: My family members were very positive. To give a clue of the level of acceptance, I took her to my uncle’s house. My uncle, Emile Derlin Zinsou, used to be the president of Benin. There are two big chairs in the house that he and his wife always sit in and watch TV together. When we came to his house, my uncle told his wife to remain in the chair, and he told my wife to sit in the other chair, which was supposed to be my uncle’s seat. He told me to go behind the chair and we took a picture together.

What future goals do you have?

Eriko: Our kids like to play soccer. So I hope they will become professional soccer players. Also, while a number of nursing care facilities have increased in Japan, people in Benin take care of the elderly at home. If we live in Benin in the future, I would like to take care of the elderly by visiting their homes.

Emmanuel: I really would like to introduce Benin (to the world) more. Benin’s heritage, what Benin stands for in the world. Also, working as a representative of the Africa, America and Asia Reconciliation Group, I really would like to talk about the role of Benin in the reconciliation process. (In 1999, Benin hosted an international conference where attendees, including descendants of slave owners and slaves, declared they would seek reconciliation.) I think Japan is a wonderful country in terms of understanding peace and reconciliation.

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