by Diane Wallingford McCarthy
Yacoubou Fred Barra was born September 12, 1939, in Penelan, Dahomey. He excelled in school. At age 16 at the Lycee Victor Ballot in Porto Novo he was the winner of the General Union of France prize in French composition. The reward was a month’s holiday in France, all expenses paid. Dahomey was then a French colony which became independent in 1960. Fred attended French schools in Dahomey and France, graduating with honors in 1961.
When Fred came to Carleton, he majored in economics and also took courses in government. Following graduation, he earned a Master of English degree at the University of Dakar and an M.A. in Education Policy at the University of Paris. He returned to Dahomey, married, and began to work for the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in a job that involved frequent travel to Europe and around Africa.
In 1968 Fred’s wife died of cancer at age 23, leaving him with a son, Omar Alcibiade Barra. Fred remarried, and he and Bridgitte later had a son, Boris, in May 1972. By then, Fred was head of the UNESCO liaison office for Dahomey. After a divorce, Fred married Marie Antoinette (nicknamed Toutou) in December 1978. By this time Dahomey had become Benin and Fred was posted to Paris as Deputy Permanent Delegate of Benin to UNESCO. He served as Secretary General of the Benin National Commission of UNESCO and a member of the Executive Board of UNESCO. In May 1980, Fred lost Omar Alcibiade, then only 13 years old, to cancer.
On November 19, 1983, Fred and Toutou had a girl, Cybele Fatima Kayode Barra. “Fatima” was the name of a sister Fred had lost in 1963. “Kayode” means “let us rejoice now” in the Yoruba language. In January 1984 Fred was recalled to Benin, and found the country in economic shambles. Fred was appointed Director of the Benin Center for Scientific Research and Techniques. Adjusting to the new order was difficult. As of January, 1989, Fred had not received any salary for four months and civil war seemed possible. Because of Fred’s position, extended family members came to him for financial help and he felt honor-bound to support them.
In February 1990, Fred had become an advisor to the Minister of Education. By early 1991, the economy had recovered, and a peaceful revolution had kicked out what Fred called “a 17-year team of corrupt politicians” without a single gunshot. Fred believed Benin was a model of democracy for the whole of Africa. In May 1993 Fred became the Director of a project that used OPEC funds to replace old schools. The intention was to build 200 primary schools in two years. Fred retired in 1995, hoping to write his memoirs and travel. During this period, money was short. Although he and Toutou had visited the U.S. in August 1981, Fred had missed both the 30th Carleton reunion in 1994 as well as his dear friend Carl Young’s wedding in Hawaii in 1996.
By 1996 Fred, who had been fighting a losing battle with weight since 1973, was suffering from high blood pressure, gout, and diabetes. For many years, he went annually to Paris for medical care, explaining that although doctors in Benin were trained in France, they didn’t keep up with scientific progress. In the spring of 1996, he and Toutou had a daughter, Corrine, whom Fred called “the joy of his old age.” In 1999, Fred’s health problems were in check and he came to the 35th Carleton reunion, as did Carl.
Fred did follow through on his dream of writing. In 2002 he published Guenet, a collection of short stories in French about the fictional character Femi Fumilayo who has various adventures with women. The narratives include discussions of politics, ethics, and art, presented in an entertaining manner. He followed in 2005 with Guenet II, with more on the loves and philandering of Femi, but also covering Fred’s life experiences – including the struggle of Omar Alcibiade against cancer and his death, memories of Victor Ballot School, his master’s thesis, his sister Fati, his mother, his father, school rivalries, land wars, and finally the story of his great journey to the U.S. with Toutou. Both of these books sold well during 2003-6 and Fred later began raising funds for a third book to be titled, Thoughts about the Progress and Happiness of the Africans. On May 15, 2008, Fred succumbed to heart trouble and diabetes. At the time, he did not know that Carl Young had cancer and would die a month later. Fred was buried, under Muslim tradition, the day after he died.