Benin Republic: A Neighbour Worth Considering


The route is manned by unprofessional border personnel but Benin Republic is a destination still worth considering, writes Ayodeji Rotinwa

The road to intra-African travel is paved with suspicious border control personnel: Immigration, the police, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency officers, Customs, soldiers. 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 with the sun’s light. Their faces nearly the colour of coal, their necks a shade lighter. When they saw us, an entourage of two buses, they stepped onto the road and held their hands, straight in front of them, fingers pointing to the sky. The more enthusiastic of them waved their guns, swinging it pointedly to the right, or the left, to join them on the dirt.

We were going to Cotonou.

We were a group of writers, bloggers, photographers, TV hosts, event planners, communication managers headed this way at the behest of Google West Africa, who wanted us to experience how its apps can work as a travel assistant when abroad, especially in a country where one doesn’t speak the language.

We were in a mobile cabin which had convertible chair beds, an actual bed, table / study area, a microwave, a fridge, water and Ribena, a tour guide and most 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 they had gained entry into the bus, mandating it had to be searched. They found a couple of straw hats, hand luggage, cracker biscuits, juice; books held in hand, earphones and confused journalists. We were stopped about twenty-five times by different groups of the same border authority body, on the journey to and from Cotonou. After a while, we stopped counting.

Each time lasted from fifteen to forty minutes. Our passports and intentions were scrutinized. A letter from the Benin Republic High Commission in Lagos stating clearly it was aware and it approved of our entry into its country was disregarded. Driver licences for the men behind the wheel of both buses were in order.

Requests for ‘something for the weekend’ shadowed our interrogation. The Nigerian Immigration Service does not care for candid cameras.

On reaching Seme, the border point between Nigeria and Benin Republic, we were held up once again. What separated the territories of both countries was a ringed wall of tyres, mounted on themselves on either side of a dusty, parched patch of road supported by a formidable black plank and a thin, sickly-looking rope.

The immigration post where passports were to be checked and our state of our health certified was a makeshift box of metal, with an open front knocked together by a local welder, it seemed. It was clothed in layers of dust and had a lot of people, too close together, congregated at its open window.

To cross over from one country to the other, it seemed the rope simply had to be lifted and scrunched up naira notes urgently pressed into the palm of the immigration officer who granted you entry.

A photographer on the bus decided to take shots of our surroundings and allegedly pointed his camera in the direction of the immigration officer when he was carrying out his entry responsibilities. The officer rushed to the bus asking that the camera be turned over to him at once. He called his colleagues. He slapped the side of the car 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 higher every time. His colleagues soon gathered by the driver’s side of the bus, ordering that the bus door be opened. The immigration officer then threatened to slash the bus’s tyres. He swiftly produced from his breast pocket what looked like a pocketknife, safely tucked in for this sort of inconveniences.

The driver, defeated, opened the bus. The immigration ran in, first knocking one out of the way with his shoulder and further into the bus, he 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 apologizing, assuring him that the photographer was doing his job, that he meant no harm. The photographer, in about ten seconds was no longer with us. We would then wait for about two hours thirty minutes at the border. Our passports and the photographer were returned, with the photos deleted from the camera.

Welcome to Cotonou

We were to spend four days here. On entry and in the days after, we would be greeted by tin roofs, unpainted buildings, petrol stored in glass jars and sold on the side of the road, street sweeper machines, citizens in brightly-coloured Ankara and women riding Okadas.

For the country’s biggest city, Cotonou is awfully shy with modern infrastructure, by observations from inside a bus that was at least a storey and a half tall and allowed for wide views. The most modern building in sight was the hotel we stayed in, Sun Beach Hotel, rated four stars by many travel review sites and had the facilities of hotels deserving of such rating, complete with a boutique that sold everything from children’s toys to beach wear, to wigs.

Eventually we would be told of a mall, and come across a business district that had a few buildings that boasted of more than one storey, that were laid with glass, marble, and other finishes. One of them was another hotel.

Voodoo Capital

We started our tour at the Sacred Forest of Benin in Ouidah (L’Iroko Benin), which is a green expanse of great trees and dry brown crunchy leaves on the floor populated by statues of supposedly industrious gods, who would offer you riches, artistic inspiration, heal wounds, smite your enemy, quicken the arrival of late offspring or bless you with longer erections.

The forest also had a shrine for the python, its worshippers present. The forest is visited regularly by locals and their needs and no one is beyond its help. Our tour guide, Mesmin, a tall, enthusiastic man who told of Benin’s history with his hands, his face and body moving at the same time and in rhythm, shared a story of how a to-be-sworn-in President had to be carried to the forest after winning an election.

He had been struck with paralysis before his swearing in and couldn’t stand of his own ability. He was flown to Paris. Doctors were unable to find a cure or a diagnosis for what ailed him. He was returned to Benin and taken to traditional medicine doctors, close to things of the otherworldly and who ascertained that he was struck by a spell delivered by one of the existing gods. They counteracted the spell at the forest and he was healed.

Mesmin soon announced, as if we had any doubts that Benin was the voodoo capital of Africa and a voodoo festival was held every year. Sacrifices were made to pythons, virgins were offered to gods, citizens came to celebrate an old king who turned himself to a tree, to keep anyone from seeing his dead body, and they come to this tree and the gods to ask for riches, babies and wellbeing.

Mesmin assures us that the gods are powerful and productive. A third of Benin’s population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. As of 2010, it had the 34th highest maternity mortality rate in the world.

Of history, slave trade monuments and blue waters

Mesmin tells us that the people of Benin – though colonized by the Portuguese and the French for over a century – have fiercely held on to what was before their colonialists imported a new way of living. The average Beninese dutifully attends church or mosque services and still worships his local gods.

In the communities and in urban areas, there are statues everywhere, odes to characters of myths, folklore and small gods. These statues are revered. At one monument, you could not come close enough to touch it without taking off your shoes.

They have especially preserved the history of transatlantic slave trade, with three major monuments, all close to the ocean set up for the purpose. One especially striking monument is a UNESCO site, ‘The Point of No Return’ built at the lip of the endless, blue ocean. Here, black bodies previously certified productive, strong, with backs given to endless violence were cargoes of labour, loaded unto ships bound for Europe, the Caribbean or the Middle East.

The monument is a storey-high structure, resembling the Arc D’Triomphe but etched with human bodies in visible states of despair. Standing there too long was to be consumed first by imagination, that were it a few centuries ago, one would be standing on the other side of the monument, in front of the ceaseless water, certain in the possibility that there were two ends: in the water or on a field, where the body and the use of it is not your own, and only for picking cotton, planting sugar, building ships, houses and reproducing to make more bodies who can continue where you leave off when you die.

The lasting tattoo of the slave era, asides the statue is Port Novo, the capital of Benin, of Portuguese origin meaning “New Port”. It was developed as a port for slave trade.

Were one to just look into the waters though, you could never guess the violence they bore and the lives they helped steal and carry off to foreign lands. Benin’s waters are a divine kind of blue, stark contrast to water bodies in Lagos. Along the coast, and smartly so, are lined some impressive resorts, one of which we had lunch at – Casa Del Papa. It comes highly recommended and deservedly so.

Light Up Cotonou

Power only went out once. When the weather disagreed with it. For four days and three nights, power did not once blinker, not in the hotel that understandably may have back-up generators, but at restaurants, craft centres, and every other place we visited. 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 thirty minutes.

The Venice of Africa

A floating community held up by stilts in less blue waters exists in Cotonou. It quite literally is another Makoko, albeit better organized, 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 called ‘Venice of Africa’, populated by about 20, 000 people and is regarded as the largest lake village in Africa.

The village floats on Lake Nokoue, a river that leads to Badagry, in Lagos, Nigeria.

Cotonou is a travel destination given to a traveller who may prefer things to move a bit more slowly. Its people are a mixed bag, some friendly, generous in warmth and hospitality, some indifferent, barricaded against foreigners by the language gap, maybe. (Google Translate is a great help with this, though!)

Tour sites are far flung apart so a trip here will require stamina. The best recommendation will be a getaway at the Oceanside resorts, where clean, whistling winds and dancing crabs can be great company.

All, in all it’s a city that requires a second visit, this time definitely by air, and for a longer stay. A city worth considering.