Countries Visited

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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bon soir, Benin!

In Benin and in Togo, white people are called "yovos." This may be related to a word that the Dahomey Kings of Benin used to used for missionary (yovogan). Anyway, when adults in either of these countries saw us on the street, they would often greet us with a "yovo, bonjour" or something like that. (The word "toubab" is used similarly in most of the other Francophone West African countries we've visited--that word coming from the Senegalese city of Touba, where Islam first came to subSaharan Africa along with "white" Arab traders.)

In most of the towns we've visited in West Africa, a white person walking down the street is kind of the show of the day, so Andy and I get a lot of (mostly friendly) attention. Kids especially seem excited to see us (and occasionally frightened to the point of tears or running away). In Mali especially, kids would often chant "toubabu! toubabu!" and follow us down the road, and want to shake or hold our hands. Our walks between the Dogon villages especially often turned into little parade scenes out of the pied piper.

But in Benin, the kids have a whole special song for us. It goes like this:

"Yovo! Yovo! Bon soir! Ca va bien! Merci!"

Which translates roughly to:

"Whitey! Whitey! Good evening! I'm doing well! Thanks!"

It's hard to explain the enthusiasm with which kids serenaded us with this song in every town we visited in Benin. Even toddlers know it. In Cotonou, a group of enthusiastic two-and three-year-olds sang it to us on a street corner, while also dancing and clapping their hands, at around 8:30 AM (it can be the "soir" at any time of day in Africa, it seems--adults also start saying "bon soir" well before noon). We suspect that the words of this song might be the only French these little kids know.

Bottom line--kids in Benin are insanely friendly. Adults are pretty darn friendly, too. In fact, I'd venture to say that the good folks of Togo and Benin have been the most friendly to us of any country yet in Africa, making our time in these two tiny countries a whole lot more enjoyable than we may have expected they would be.

On to the pictures.

After crossing the border from Togo, we arrived in the city of Natitingou in northwestern Benin. It had great street food, like this fresh juice stand.
Psych! That's not a juice stand, it's a gas station. All over West Africa you'll find these roadside setups with reused liquor bottles full of different grades of gas and oil for filling motorcycles, cars, and trucks. You just pull up and a person (usually a woman) runs over with a bottle of gas, a funnel, and a piece of cloth to help filter, and fills up your tank. (Andy did think they were drinks stands the first few times he saw them, though.)

The coolest thing in Nati was probably the swarms of bats that filled the colorful sky at sunset. No pic of that, unfortunately, but here you can see a bunch hanging upside down in trees beside the road before their night flight. They were HUGE bats and made a lot of noise chirping in the trees.
Our real aim in visiting Nati was to get to the nearby Pendjari National Park, which we managed to do thanks to finding a Swiss tourist who also wanted to go and was willing to split the high costs of getting there (4WD rental, gas, and driver/guide) with us. So we set off at 5AM the next day to go see some wildlife.

We didn't get to see any lions or leopards (though the park has them), but we still did pretty well with sightings of various types of deer and antelope, big birds, wild dogs, baboons, warthogs, and...an elephant! Just one, but we turned a corner and there he was, RIGHT near the car. We got to watch him dismantle a tree and eat it for a while.
Here is a great shot Andy took of a Cobb antelope. These guys and their does were all over the park.

At the hippo-viewing station near a little lake (one hippo with baby spotted in the water, though you could just really see the tops of their heads), Andy found this cool iridescent bug.

Not a bad trip, though probably not quite as cool as Mole National Park in Ghana, since we got to walk around there. Pendjari was our first car safari, and we learned some important things--for instance, if you're supposed to stay in the car and you wander off a little bit on foot during a stop, your guide will yell at you. Also, it's REALLY easy to fall asleep during a car safari...

On our way back from the park, we stopped to swim at a nearby waterfalls. Very beautiful and relaxing. Also entertaining, as a local guy climbed up to the edge you see near the top and leaped into the water from there.
Our next stop in Benin was Abomey, home of the once very powerful and greatly feared Dahomey Kingdom. We took a two-hour walking tour of the historical sights around the city, and since they are spread pretty far apart, we were walking almost the entire time. I think our elderly guide would have preferred us to take zems, or motorcycle taxis, around, but those things have no helmets and scare the heck out of me (I did ride one in Togo with a borrowed helmet, but really prefer to avoid them). They are the way most Togolese and Beninese people get around, however.

First we visited the cemetary where French soldiers were killed by women warriors in the 1800s during their first attempt to colonize the area. These warriors are called Amazons locally and were extremely strong 12-14-year-old virgins whose preferred method of combat was apparently break your spine while giving you a welcome hug. Given how women seem to do pretty much all the work in West Africa, Andy and I were not surprised to learn that they used to make up the army, too.
The main square in Abomey has this statue of the Dahomeyan king who stood up against the colonizers.
Nature break--Andy spotted this tiny lizard during our tour of Abomey.
And this grasshopper. OK, back to the tour.
The town had many old palaces of the different kings, but they all had the same design and the same symbols on them. Each king had his own symbol, so the line of previous kings' symbols (such as the buffalo and lion below) would be sculpted in bas-relief on every palace.
Andy managed to snap this pic of a fetish stall before people in the market started yelling and demanding a "cadeau" (gift or bribe). People in West Africa really don't like you taking pictures of fetishes unless you pay them. You can't really see here, but this stall sold some dead birds (bottom of pic), bones, and probably skins and such, too.
Our last stop in Benin was Cotonou, the country's largest city and financial (though not political) capital. It's on the Atlantic coast and is a big port. Our hotel in the center of the city, Hotel Babo, cost $14 a night and was the most expensive hotel we stayed at in Benin. (Unfortunately, it was not the nicest, but the view from our sixth-floor room was pretty sweeping.)
Julie asked to see more of our rooms, so here is our room at the Babo. I think it looks nicer in this picture than it was--the blue walls weren't quite so cheery in person, and the attached "bathroom" consisted of a tap and bucket we showered with and a toilet whose tank leaked half its water all over the floor whenever you tried to flush (we soon started using the bucket for this, too). But the fan worked, and when the municipal power went out (as it did daily), a generator started things back up again within minutes.
Andy says that Cotonou's candy-cane-striped cathedral looks like it belongs at the North Pole.
Cotonou's market, the Grande Marché de Dantokpa, was probably our favorite market in West Africa. It is huge, and filled with tasty things that you'll see pictures of in our next food post. At its edge is the city's lagoon, where we stopped to take some pictures of people arriving by boat...
...and some girls saw us with our camera, and wanted to see the pictures we were taking. They were really fascinated by the camera, but clearly also kind of afraid of it--when Andy offered to take a picture of them, they practically ran away. But then--after seeing us take a pic of a nearby boatful of people, and seeing that none of the people in the boat had died--one of the girls decided she did want her picture taken, and so gifted us with what's definitely the best voluntary portrait of our trip so far.
She loved seeing her picture, and then she and her friends were off--no asking for money or a gift or anything. (In some of the more touristy places we've been, kids will try to get you to take their picture, then demand money for the service.)

It seems that the rest of our Cotonou pics are of food, so I'll just say here that we liked the city a whole lot more than we expected to, considering that its calling cards are generally considered to be smog and insane motorcycle traffic (both true). But the market is wonderful, and the free (yay!) modern African art museum, Fondation Zinsou, is truly fantastic. Plus the kids and street vendors we met were all just really welcoming and nice. Oh, and it didn't hurt that the food we bought was incredibly cheap and delicious...

From Cotonou, we took a day trip to see the stilt village of Ganvié. In the 1500s, a group of people fled encroaching slavers out into the middle of a lagoon, where they built homes on poles and developed a system of fish-trapping/farming. Apparently, a religious custom forbade the slave-hunting group from entering the water, so the people who lived on the lagoon were safe from them there.

Here are some typical structures--no electricity except in a few of the bigger public buildings. The wooden houses need to be rebuilt every 20-30 years due to, you know, rot.
In Ganvié, the men do the fishing and the women take the fish to market. Here you see some boys and men setting up the fronds that are used to help entice and trap the fish.
Everyone travels around the village, and between the village and the mainland, by boat. A few of the boats we saw had nice sails, like this one.

So that's Benin. It also has beach towns, old slaving forts, and voodoo centers--none of which we visited, but they are there for those who are interested. Not a bad place to spend four or five days--we spent some very bons soirs, indeed.

2 comments:

  1. Yovo! Yovo! Merci pour la photo de votre hotel! Also, if I may speak in a language I actually know, the flies of Benin are impressive.

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  2. Would you add your bat photo as a citizen-science observation to the AfriBats project on iNaturalist?:
    http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/afribats

    AfriBats will use your observations to better understand bat distributions and help protect bats in Africa.

    Please locate your picture on the map as precisely as possible to maximise the scientific value of your records.

    Many thanks!

    PS: these are straw-coloured fruit bats, Eidolon helvum

    ReplyDelete