There is no Benin Embassy in London and so I had to get my visa from the Honorary Consulate of Benin, which is housed in a small room in an industrial park near Neasden in north London. A far cry from the stately embassies dotted around the leafy suburbs of the city which many countries have. It was possibly the most pleasant visa application experience I’ve had, and I’ve had quite a few over the years. I didn’t have to deal with the seemingly endless red tape of some of the larger embassies – Russia and India both used to be real headaches until they got to grips with the concept of efficiency about five years ago. Instead, this was like meeting a learned uncle who has travelled the world and loved to share his tales over a cup of tea and a hob-nob. The consulate is only open a few times a week but Mr Landau has held the position of Benin’s Honorary Consulate in the UK for over 40 years and is a personal acquaintance of the country’s former president Mathieu Kérékou. Indeed, Mr Landau has been awarded the National Order of Benin and I got the feeling he relished telling me about his personal history with the small West African nation. He took a keen interest in my reasons for my application and gave his two pennies worth about his favourite restaurants in Cotonou. After a half hour chinwag I was on my way with my visa in hand.
However, when I landed at the small airport in Cotonou at the weekend I was told by the immigration staff that the visa was not valid! “There must be some mistake”, I insisted, “It was signed by a personal friend of the ex-president”. That didn’t seem to cut it and they insisted on seeing more documents. These, too, were not enough and they said I couldn’t enter the country. So I resorted to an act which I’ve never really done on my travels, and I pleaded! Not to the point of tears but after a few minutes of my appearing to be distraught, the guy simply stamped the passport and let me through. Maybe I could’ve been like Daniel Day-Lewis if I’d put more in to acting classes at school.
So, I made it through and everything has gone very smoothly since then. Cotonou is the capital of Benin in all but name – that title goes to the sleepy backwater town of Porto-Novo. Like Lagos in neighbouring Nigeria, Cotonou is the country’s main port (one of the largest in West Africa) and the centre of industry, commerce and trade. It also the seat of government, even though it is not the capital. Unlike Nigeria, which is a mere 25 miles east of Cotonou, the streets of Benin are not a place to be afraid of kidnappings and violent muggings. The country suffers none of the upheaval that Nigeria does and the folk here, both locals and expats, seem to live side by side in relative harmony. Whilst walking the streets I’ve hardly been stared at and have seen many an expat jogging (in the midday heat!) or pootling along on a bicycle.
The exclusive area of Haie Vive where many of the expat bars and restaurants are is a leisurely place to stroll, just watch out for the potholes in the pavements and the endless sand. On my second day I travelled with my driver in to the centre of the city which is more like the West Africa I know. Edward, my English speaking driver, only has one eye, and judging by the state of his ancient Mercedes, complete with cracked windscreen and no air conditioning, he could perhaps do with another one! We survived the day though. Along with the trucks and beaten-up old Peugeots and Citroens, a popular way to get around for the locals is on motorbikes. However, the road safety rules are quite different to those back home. Fancy riding a hefty motorbike with your two children stuck to your back, whilst wearing stilettos!!
One unexpected sight of the city was the huge hypermarket Erevan. My experience of West African ‘expat’ supermarkets are usually small affairs, often run by Lebanese, but Erevan looks very out of place. Inside it’s just like any French hypermarket such as Carrefour or Auchan and I had to blink to remind myself I was in West Africa.
Because of the way my flights for this trip have worked out I found myself with an extra day in Benin and so, with one-eyed Edward, I headed out for a day away from the city. In the morning I visited the rather surreal stilt village of Ganvie. Located in the middle of a lake and home to more than 25,000 people, each of the houses and buildings is constructed on wooden stilts. There are no roads or cars and everyone gets around by boat. I’ve not been to Venice but I’d imagine this is a rather more intriguing sight. There is a hospital, schools, churches, hotels and shops, all ‘floating’ above the water. Most bizarre!
In the afternoon I went to the coastal town of Ouidah, famous as the home of voodoo and as one of the main ports of the African slave trade. I’d learnt a bit about voodoo during my visit to Togo last year and it’s certainly not as macabre as Hollywood makes it out to be. It is a sincere religion which the adherents take very seriously. However, seeing a blood soaked sheet at the foot of a sacrificial tree was a little unexpected. I managed to get up close and personal with a room full of pythons too, and they were nice enough to pose for a photo with ECA’s Newsline. I then took a walk through a ‘sacred forest’ where various colourful voodoo divinities look down upon you. My last port of call was the humbling slave memorial at the ‘Point of no Return’, from where thousands of slaves walked their last steps on the continent they knew as home.
I’m off to the airport now for quick flight to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast from where I will hopefully be reporting later in the week. Until then I hope you enjoy the photo slideshow which was lacking from my previous blogs from Nigeria. As you can tell, Benin is much safer and so the camera was working overtime.