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Benin

23 -30 May

Crossing into Benin
After huge hugs from Alice, we left Lome on the morning of 23 May and drove along the coast road to the Benin border. The traffic consisted of nothing but vast trucks going to, or coming from, Benin and Nigeria. Overtaking them was just horrendous. At one point we must have passed at least three miles of them just parked up on the roadside. The border too was something else; it was a complete shambles and the most chaotic border we had come across, after Morocco that is! It was also horribly claustrophobic, suffocatingly so; in between the packed jumble of cars and high sided lorries were bystanders wanting to sell you something, or beggars ambushing you and wanting your small change. All this whilst we were trying to keep our cool, navigating the maze of vehicles to get from one hut to another, to get passports stamped and carnet signed. We just about made it without getting too hot and bothered, well just!!

Grand Popo
Once in Benin we didn’t have far to go before we reached Grand Popo, at one time just a coastal fishing village, now a beach bum’s paradise with a smattering of beach side bars and lodges along a coconut palm fringed, white sandy beach, at the back of which ran a dirt track leading to the French run Auberge Grand Popo, an attractive old French colonial court house, right on the beach. As we approached the Auberge we saw the distinctive yellow campervan of Ralf, a gutsy young German paraplegic travelling alone and whom we had last seen in Burkina Faso. We felt the weather wasn’t good enough to enjoy camping alongside Ralf at the edge of the beach, so we took a lovely room with a balcony, facing the sea; it was so good to be by the sea again. The second night a huge thunder storm enveloped us, we almost got blown out of bed by the wind and the rain started to come through the slats in the louver doors. Once we had battened down the hatches all was a little calmer, but we were relieved not to have been in Boris and hoped that Ralf was surviving the onslaught. Thankfully we found him still there in the morning, sitting in a chair by his van having some home brewed coffee.

On 25 May we left Grand Popo, but not without agreeing to meet up with Ralf before we reached the Nigerian border and travel with him and our Swiss friends across Nigeria and to the Cameroun. Our route took us east along the coast road in the direction of Cotonou, the capital of Benin. It was now well into the rainy season and everywhere was looking so green, the road side grasses had grown to over a metre tall, once dry ponds and pools were now refilled and brimming with life and water filled the pot holes in the road making it difficult to judge their depth and danger. We were travelling on a Sunday and couldn’t help but notice how beautifully dressed everyone was. Sunday dress is definitely ‘the best’ in West Africa and it’s really all about being as smart as possible for going to church. The colours that both the women and men wore were so bright, so vibrant, it was a pleasure to watch them promenading in the streets either on their way to, or their way from a church service.

Abomey
We skirted around Cotonou and then headed north towards Abomey, which along with Timbuktu and Zanzibar are the most celebrated cities of old Africa. Here we stayed at Chez Monique, a rather dark and oppressive auberge set amongst tall trees that filtered the light adding a sinister gloom to huge, rather odd and very phallic wooden voodoo carvings that appeared to be lurking everywhere. Liz found the place distinctly spooky. Hardly surprising as in Victorian times when the city and its kingdom were known as Dahomey and the epitome of savage Africa, the mention of the name Dahomey would cause ladies to faint and grown men to blanch; this was the place where the very walls of the city were made with human blood and festooned with the heads of enemies and former friends, where human sacrifice was common and the king sat on a throne of human heads protected by the only genuine Amazon army the world has ever seen. Imagine that, golly gosh!



We woke up to a cool misty morning and after a good breakfast, met our guide and set off, with all three of us squashed together in the front of Boris, on a tour of Abomey. We first stopped at a huge bronze statue of Gbehanzin the last king of Dahomey, who, facing defeat by the French in 1892, torched the city and, to prevent French humiliation of his family, personally slit the throats of his mother and 41 of her servants. The number 41 had immense sacred significance!

Before going to the Royal Palace, we were taken to a Voodoo temple, unfortunately the priest was not present so we were unable to enter, but from what our guide told us the Voodoo religion has a strong following in the Christian areas of Benin; when Christianity was introduced, the existing supreme God (Mawu) and his cohort of deities easily morphed with God, the Virgin Mary and the saints. It was in the New World where a combination of Haitian ex slaves and Hollywood changed a mundane African religion into something demonic and Voodoo for ever became associated with human sacrifice and zombies. In front of the temple was a Voodoo shrine or fetish (to call an offering a fetish is a French-inspired misnomer) and a short distance away was a market, amongst the stalls was one selling Voodoo good luck charms and assorted bits of animals and birds for use as fetish offerings; Liz found very off putting. We didn’t stay long at the stall and bought nothing despite the guide’s promptings, he probably didn’t understand Liz’s use of the word ’yuk’!

As each king could never occupy the palace of his predecessor, he built a new one alongside; thus over a 300 year period, by the time the French attacked the city, there were 12 adjoining palaces covering over 40 hectares. After Gbehanzin’s orgy of pyromania and throat slitting, only 2 palaces remained and are now a World Heritage site. We spent a couple of hours touring the palaces; seeing the throne seated on top of four human skulls, a fly swat with its handle fashioned from a skull, the temple under which and alongside their dead king, 41 of his wives were buried alive and another temple whose mud walls were created using the blood of 41 slaves. By now Liz was looking a little pale and, after a bit of retail therapy at the nearby artisans market, we left Abomey and headed north to Djougou.

The Dankoli Fetish
Just when Liz thought that all this gore and blood was over, we came to the most powerful Voodoo fetish in Benin, indeed the world, where the gods were so close that a priest was not needed to act as an intermediary. The roadside fetish at Dankoli was a smelly, rotting pile of sacrificial blood, bones and feathers in the centre of which was a tree stump from which were hanging assorted animal parts and, quite incongruously, motorbike inner tubes. It was surrounded by the oddest of people and Liz couldn’t leave this ‘unsavoury place’ as she called it, quickly enough. Before doing so Peter, made of sterner stuff, spent time talking to ‘the pilgrims’ about the process of making a request to the gods. This seemed to involve hammering a wooden peg into the stinking pile of a fetish, then an horrendous rum cocktail spitting and bright orange palm oil pouring free for all; first over the wooden stake, then into two holes in the ground and finally over a large wooden willy! Should the request be granted, the supplicant must return and add a sacrifice to the pile around the tree stump ... or else!



Djougou
With Liz gulping in fresh air through the opened window, we then left for Djougou where we made our base for the next few days at the Motel du Lac. Not a motel more an auberge, it was run by a very pleasant French woman, Madeleine, who had worked as a nurse in a hospital in the area before opening the motel. She had an amazing kitchen garden full of the loveliest Mediterranean herbs, mainly Basil, which simply grew everywhere. Her food of course was extremely tasty and very garlicky. We had wanted to come to Djougou to visit the remote villages of the Taneka people and knew that Madeleine would be able to provide us with the guide necessary to gain entry to these villages, where traditional tribal life carries on untouched by the 21 century.

Our guide, Zouma Rou Alassane, spoke English (much to Liz’s relief) and was just superb. What was supposed to have been a two hour visit to a Taneka village, turned into a fascinating and informative afternoon and evening’s immersion in the culture and everyday life of the Taneka village, Singeha, where he was born and one not normally visited by tourists. It is impossible to convey in a couple of sentences the unreserved and open welcome we were given, being treated at all times not as tourists, but as honoured guests of the village and its inhabitants; we felt humbled and honoured by our reception. It was a fascinating window into a lifestyle and culture that may not survive the arrival of electricity and is already fraying at the edges as the younger tribal members seek to turn their back on an ancient communal lifestyle, leave the village and adopt the modern, frenetic and inherently less supportive consumer led lifestyle of their peer group in the towns around them.



Alassane, as he wished to be called, was the key to our enjoyment of the visit. He was obviously keenly supportive of the old customs and traditions and has plans for a Taneka information centre-cum-museum for tourists and Beninoise alike. Unsurprisingly he had a tremendous rapport with the villagers and in particular the hierarchy, in an entirely natural manner he prostrated himself as a sign of respect before each elder we came to and, as far as our questions and requests were concerned, nothing was too much.
The village was on a rocky promontory and consisted of close knit groups of small circular grass roofed huts, centred around an open area that served as a communal kitchen and meeting point. We were first introduced to the village spiritual leader who, throughout his life, could not wear anything other than a leather loin cloth; he quite calmly indicated which hut he would be buried in when he died and explained that his successor had to come from his family and was already chosen, but the next holy man would remain unaware of his selection until the death of the incumbent. Peter blotted his copybook on meeting the holy man, by advancing and shaking his hand; no one is supposed to touch him without his prior agreement. This faux pas was ignored and put down to ignorance; Peter’s fulsome apology and subsequent stream of questions seemed to please the holy man, who asked Peter to sit next to him, then, clutching his traditional Tanaka pipe and with Peter alongside and Liz and Alassane in tow, he led the way to the hut of the village King. There existed a definite king hierarchy and we were being honoured with an audience with the ’king of kings’, the lesser kings appeared to be the heads of various extended families that made up the population of the village.



On the way we passed through a group of huts and, on meeting the women there, were told that they were the wives of one of the lesser kings who had recently died. Peter was invited to enter the dead king’s hut to see where the burial had taken place and struggled through a low tunnel like entrance into a dark interior, no more than eight feet in diameter and so low that he could not begin to stand up even when he was crawling over the king’s grave. The grave was a round hole dug about four feet deep and just wide enough to accept the body, which was placed in the grave knees bent and up against the chest; just thought you might want to know!

On arrival at the ‘king of kings’ hut and having exchanged greetings in the approved manner, we sat down and the king lit his pipe, as did the holy man. After Peter had asked a question about the tobacco being used (answer: home grown), the king and holy man went into a huddle; the result of which was that the king presented Peter with his old pipe, the stem suitably cleaned with a leaf, that was abrasive and as good as any sand paper, from a nearby tree. As daylight began to fade we took our leave of the Taneka King and his villagers; bringing to an end a truly memorable experience, even more so for Peter after Alassane had explained that the presentation of the pipe by the king was unprecedented and a great honour.

On 29 May we left Djougou for Parakou, but not before first finding a post office where we could post a birthday card to you, Suzie. Hope you got it for the 4 of June, although probably unlikely, sorry Suzie!! We also had a quick walk round this very Muslim town which had rather a pleasant feel about it. There was nothing in particular to look at and even the market was not in operation. It looked a huge area with rows of empty little rickety stalls, consisting of thin wobbly poles holding up badly thatched roofs. We walked up to a huge mosque beside which was an equally huge tree where a number of men sat in its shade, as they do so often in Africa, cogitating over the day ahead no doubt. Their topic of the moment was halted as they invited us to chat with them. It was a most enjoyable interlude for us, as well as for them so it seemed.

Walking back to Boris, we attracted children from every street corner; never had we seen so many and once they realised that after a picture was taken they could see themselves on a small screen, they all clamoured to get their photos taken. They got terribly over excited and were so noisy that some adults close by came to try to quieten them down, without any obvious success. At one point Peter looked just like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, it was hilarious.



One thing we noticed more in Djougou than elsewhere in Benin was the use of motor scooters as taxis. The drivers wore a tatty faded yellow tabard on which was scrawled his registration number and they gathered in groups at most junctions. Those with a fare, never more than one passenger, but often carrying boxes, bags and assorted ironmongery that more than doubled the size of the scooter, zoomed hither and thither emitting high pitched peeps to warn vehicles of their approach and that they were about to be overtaken, preferably in the most dangerous and life threatening way possible.

Parakou
Our route to Parakou was lovely, taking us through some open woodland that reminded us of the woods in England in late Spring, fresh translucent lime green leaves and dappled sunlight, making us feel quite at home. However our reverie was short lived, we soon passed piles of yams and cassava, interspersed with sacks of charcoal – the standard fuel source - being sold on the side of the road. We then stopped at a road side market that was in the process of being set up, with more and more vendors, virtually all women as is normal, arriving by the minute, mostly on foot after a journey of up to 3 or 4 miles carrying their wares on their head. For Liz this was a welcome opportunity to buy fruit for lunch and attempt to photograph the women in their smart bright clothing; although regarding photography as an unwanted intrusion, often women are less reluctant to be photographed by another woman. So it proved in this case, but not for long!
With fruit bought and a few photos taken, we left the market and drove on for another 2 hours, Liz map reading our way through a maze of minor roads. Often we have found whilst driving a right hand drive car in left hand drive Africa, people automatically look at the ‘driver’ as we pass by, and Liz, sitting on the left, is presumed to be the driver; a white woman driving is quite a surprise to them. Surprise turns to horror when the ’driver’ is holding up a map in front of her face and to goggle-eyed panic, bouts of arm waving and honking of horns when she’s got her bottom in the air, pressed to the windscreen, whilst trying to get some refreshment or something similar out of the back! Thank goodness we haven’t caused any accidents.
We stayed in the Lebanese run Hotel Majestic in Parakou, where we met up as planned with Ralf and his bright yellow van ‘Fatima’. However, Philippe had been struck down with a tummy bug and he and Susanne wouldn’t be able to get to Parakou in time to join us in crossing the border. A couple of more texts later and we had agreed to meet up in Nigeria as and when possible. It proved to be a good night’s stopover as there was an internet connection for our laptop and we could upload items for Andy to put on the website; thanks again Andy for a job well done. After quick email checks and chats with the family on Skype, we had a good night’s sleep and felt ready for the trip to the border the next day.

Nikki
We drove north on a good surfaced road, then turning east to Nikki the road changed to badly maintained, corrugated dirt track. We made Nikki, the last town before the border and with one wide dusty main road pointing arrow like in the direction of Nigeria, by midday. Ralf had suggested that as it was Friday, we try to obtain some Nigerian currency, the Naira, in Nikki. As we sat having a coke - we drink coke in Africa like there is no tomorrow, it’s safe, a good source of energy and good for settling minor stomach complaints - Ralf, being more experienced in these matters, got a passing motorcyclist to find and bring a money changer to us, then he and Liz sat with him working out the going rate as locals looked on. Money changed and enough to last us over the weekend, we headed for the border.

Nigeria
30 May – 13 June

Crossing into Nigeria
As we wanted to avoid the madness that was Lagos, we had decided to cross into central Nigeria and with another little used border crossing point, take a chance with the route and road conditions. However the route from Nikki proved straight forward and the dirt track in reasonable condition. Arriving at the lone rusty roofed hut and even more rusty chain that ran from it across the road marking the Benin side of the border, we soon had completed the necessary formalities. However Ralf had a ‘problem’ with his Benin visa, it had expired! Being in the wrong and needing to cross the border, this was manna from heaven for the stumpy border official; the scent of money was in the air and he meant to get some. After a three minute obligatory rant about the illegality of travelling with an expired visa, he then went into the ‘something could possibly be done, but the work involved and the risk to my job...’ mode, his expression throughout designed to leave open the possibility of Ralf making this all worth his while. The asking price was the equivalent of two if not three month’s pay; as Ralf had no local currency, it was Peter who had to screw his face up into an expression of infinite regret and say that all the local currency we had left amounted to only a quarter of sum demanded and then explain that, if this was turned down and we could not cross, the official would be out of pocket. Pause for thought, followed by a grudging agreement and payment of the ‘consideration’.

Chain lowered, we crossed the border and headed fowards to a collection of dilapidated Nigerian buildings and boy were they dilapidated, the Nigerians were obviously majoring in a degree of dilapidation we had not seen before. The buildings were no longer weather proof and quite literally falling down. As on the Benin side, apart from local people who seemed able to cross at will and with no checks of any kind, we were the first and probably only people to cross that day. The whole process was very slow and bureaucratic, with one official sounding off about the way he felt the government and politicians in general were no good and had let Nigeria down. He wasn’t a happy man and kept us for ages before we could move on.


It was the 30 May and we were now in Nigeria, we could hardly believe it. Actually, we feel this way whenever we arrive in a new country and want to pat ourselves on the back for making it thus far. Yes, well done us!!



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