The road that is intra-African travel is paved with suspicious border control personnel, Immigration and Customs officers, the police, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, and the army. They stood, in twos and threes, on the sides of the road that had run out of bauxite, in pressed, stiff uniforms. Sweat shone on their foreheads, teased by the sun’s light. Their faces were nearly all the colour of coal, their necks a shade lighter. When they saw us, an entourage of two buses, they stepped onto the road and put out their hands, fingers pointing to the sky. The more enthusiastic among them waved their guns, swinging them pointedly to the right or the left, inviting us to join them on the dirt.
We were a group of writers, bloggers, photographers, TV hosts, event planners and communications managers, headed for Cotonou at the behest of Google West Africa, who wanted us to experience how its apps act as a travel assistant when abroad, especially in a country where one doesn’t speak the language. Our buses had convertible chair beds, an actual bed, tables in a study area, a microwave, a fridge, water and Ribena, a tour guide and, mercifully, a toilet.
We were ‘persons of interest’
“Una dey enjoy o,” the border authorities said to no one in particular more than once, after gaining entry to the bus, demanding to search it. They found a couple of straw hats and hand luggage, crackers and juice, books, earphones and confused journalists. On the journey to and from Cotonou, we were stopped about 25 times. After a while, we stopped counting.
Each encounter lasted from 15 to 40 minutes. Our passports and intentions were scrutinised. A letter from the Benin Republic High Commission in Lagos, stating clearly that it was aware and approved of our entry into that country, was disregarded. Driver’s licences for the men behind the wheel of both buses were in order.
Unasked requests for ‘something for the weekend’ shadowed these interrogations.
On the journey to and from Cotonou, we were stopped about 25 times. After a while, we stopped counting.
A cameraman’s unexpected clash with the Nigerian Immigration Service
At the town of Seme, the official border point between Nigeria and Benin Republic, we were stopped again. What separated the territories of the two countries was a wall of tyres on either side of a parched patch of road, supported by a formidable-looking black plank and a thin, sickly looking rope. The immigration post on the Nigerian side, where passports were to be checked and the state of our health certified, was a makeshift metal container, with an open front knocked together by a local welder, it seemed. It was clothed in layers of dust and a lot of people, too close together, congregated at its open window.
To cross into either country, the rope simply needed to be lifted and scrunched-up naira notes urgently pressed into the palm of the immigration officer who granted you entry. A photographer among us decided to take shots of our surroundings and pointed his camera in the direction of the immigration officer who was carrying out his entry duties. The officer rushed over to the bus, demanding that the camera be turned over to him at once. He called his colleagues. He slapped the side of the bus when the driver and the photographer asked him why he wanted the camera; what was wrong? Veins snaked across the side of his neck as he spoke, his voice rising.
We waited for about two-and-a-half hours before our passports, the photographer and his camera, with the photos deleted, were eventually returned.
His colleagues soon gathered beside the driver, ordering him to open the door. The immigration officer threatened to slash the bus’s tyres, producing from his breast pocket what looked like a pocket knife, safely tucked in there for just this sort of inconvenience. The driver, defeated, opened the bus. The immigration personnel ran in, knocking me out of the way. The officer snatched the camera from the photographer and slapped him with the certainty that can only come from not expecting retaliation.
“You dey craze, I be your mate? You no hear say make you open door? You dey mad?”
He gathered the photographer’s shirt in his fist and dragged him out of the bus, with the rest of us apologising and assuring him that the photographer was just doing his job; that he meant no harm. In the space of about 10 seconds, the photographer was no longer with us. We waited for about two-and-a-half hours before our passports, the photographer and his camera, with the photos deleted, were eventually returned.
Exploring Benin’s biggest city
We were to spend four days in Cotonou. We were greeted by tin roofs, unpainted buildings, petrol stored in glass jars and sold by the side of the road, street-sweeping machines, citizens in brightly coloured Ankara and women riding Okadas (motorcycle taxis). For what is the country’s biggest city, Cotonou is awfully shy of modern infrastructure. The most modern building in sight was the hotel we stayed at, the Sun Beach Hotel. It was rated four stars by many travel review sites and boasts the facilities deserving of such a rating, complete with a boutique store that sold everything from children’s toys to beach wear and wigs. We eventually heard about a mall and then we came across a business district with a few buildings higher than one storey, overlaid with glass, marble and other finishes.
Local customs are alive and well
We started our tour of the city with L’Iroko Tours at the Sacred Forest of Benin, a green expanse of great trees, also populated by statues of supposedly industrious gods, who could offer you riches, artistic inspiration, heal wounds, smite your enemies, quicken the arrival of offspring or bless you with longer erections. The forest also had a shrine to the python, whose worshippers were present when we were there. The forest is visited regularly by locals and no one is beyond its help.
Our tour guide, Mesmin, a tall, enthusiastic man who told of Benin’s history with his hands, face and body all moving in rhythm, shared a story of how a newly elected president, who had yet to be sworn in, had to be carried to the forest. He had been struck with paralysis and couldn’t stand on his own. He was flown to Paris, where doctors were unable to find a cure or a diagnosis for what ailed him. He returned to Benin and was taken to traditional healers, who ascertained that he had been struck by a spell. They counteracted the spell in the forest and he was healed.
Mesmin reminded us that Benin was the voodoo capital of Africa and that a voodoo festival was held there every year. Sacrifices were made to pythons, virgins were offered to gods, and citizens came to celebrate an old king who had turned himself into a tree to prevent anyone from seeing his dead body. They come to this tree and to the gods to ask for riches, babies, wellbeing…
Mesmin assured us that the gods were powerful and productive – yet a third of Benin’s population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 per day. In 2010, it had the 34th highest maternity mortality rate in the world.
Mesmin reminded us that Benin was the voodoo capital of Africa and that a voodoo festival was held there every year.
Mesmin told us that although the people of Benin had been colonized by the Portuguese and the French for over a century, they fiercely held on to what was their own in the face of the colonialists importing a new way of living. The average Beninese dutifully attends church or mosque but still worships his local gods. In rural communities and in urban areas, revered statues of small gods and odes to characters from myth and folklore are everywhere.
The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade has been preserved in particular. There are three major monuments, all close to the ocean. One especially moving monument, a UNESCO heritage site, is known as ‘The Door of No Return’ and was built at the lip of the endless, blue ocean. Here, black bodies that had been certified productive and strong were loaded onto ships bound for Europe, the Caribbean or the Middle East.
The one-storey-high monument resembles the Arc D’Triomphe but is etched with human bodies in visible states of despair. To stand there was to be consumed by imagination, knowing that more than a century ago, one could have been standing on the other side of the monument, facing the ceaseless waves and the certainty that there were two possible ends: in the water or on a field, where the body and the use of it was no longer your own; that it would only be for picking cotton, planting sugarcane, building ships and houses and reproducing to make more bodies who can continue when you leave for the other world.
Like a lasting tattoo of the slave era, Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin, its name meaning “New Port” in Portuguese, reminds us that it was developed as a port for the slave trade.
Were one to just look at the ocean, though, you could never guess the violence it bore witness to and the lives it helped steal and carry off to foreign lands. Benin’s coastal waters are a divine kind of blue, in stark contrast to water bodies in Lagos. The coast is lined with some impressive resorts, one of which – Casa Del Papa – we had lunch at. It came highly recommended, and proved to deserve it.
Here, black bodies that had been certified productive and strong were loaded onto ships bound for Europe, the Caribbean or the Middle East.
The lights stay on
Power went out only once, when the weather disagreed with it. For four days and three nights power did not falter once, not in the hotel, which may have back-up generators, but even at restaurants, craft centres and every other place we visited. But on the night before we left, a thunderstorm cracked through the city and power went out. A generator took a while to come on, apparently because it wasn’t often put to use. The power was back on in 30 minutes.
The Venice of Africa
A floating community, held up by stilts in less blue water, exists in Cotonou. It is officially known as the Ganvie Lake Village and is quite literally another Makoko. Makoko is a slum neighbourhood on water, in Lagos, Nigeria, largely ignored by the government. Cotonou’s floating village is better organised, however, with floating markets, boreholes, churches, a mosque, a school, all with solar panels and fishing farms, called ‘land’, neatly allocated to different families. It is popularly known as the ‘Venice of Africa’ and its population of about 20 000 people means that it is regarded as the largest lake village in Africa. The village floats on Lake Nokoue, a river that leads to Badagry, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Worth a visit
Cotonou is a destination suited to a traveller who prefers things to move a bit more slowly. Its people are a mixed bag, some friendly and hospitable, some indifferent, perhaps barricaded against foreigners by the language gap. (Google Translate is a great help with this, though!) Tourist sites are far apart, so a visit does require stamina. My best recommendation would be a getaway at one of the resorts, where fresh, whistling winds and dancing crabs can be great company. All in all, Cotonou requires a second visit. The next time I will definitely go there by air and stay for longer. This is a city worth exploring.