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Doing a lot with a little in Agoua

"It’s your fuel injectors," the mechanic confirmed, while children came to look at us, studying us from sideways glances and little smiles, one finger tucked in the corner of their mouths. Some were dressed in khaki school uniforms, others in underpants that didn’t necessarily correspond to their gender; at least one little boy was wearing nothing at all. No one asked us for anything; no one held out an outstretched hand; no one tried to reach into our vehicle. They were just interested in watching us. We stayed there for four hours in the hot afternoon sun, watching the shadows lengthen and the market close up operations and the women go home. And the mechanic and his friends got to work on our car. Their tools consisted of one misshapen flathead screwdriver, a cheap steel socket for removing spark plugs, a loose gilette razor blade, and a couple of tubes of crazy glue from the market. But it was enough. Continue reading "Doing a lot with a little in Agoua"

The King Has no Clothes: Tanéka Koko

The little village lie not far from the highway by Djougou, and we had enough fuel and enough daylight to make the little side trip worth our while, so we turned west off the highway and bumped our away up into a little valley of the Atakora Mountains to see the Tanéka people. Writes Stuart Butler:

"The villages are moulded on to the rocky hillsides that start to build up to the north of town … [they] appear from a distance to be just like any other African village, but once inside the middle of them you will realise that all of the buildings are actually far smaller than you originally thought and it’s hard to believe that anyone can fit inside the houses."
Continue reading "The King Has no Clothes: Tanéka Koko"

Pendjari: the Elephant Sleeps Tonight

Crocodiles glide imperceptibly across the glassy surface, leaving no wake. Little popcorn birds in the hundreds gather in the tree branches with a whir, settle at the edges of elephant tracks now filled with muddy water, pivot deliberately to drink. A flash of red, blue, turqouise in the treetops. Deep elephant tracks in the mud, soft cat prints in the powdery sand, soft tracks that pad silently across the way. With a crack of falling wood that echoes like gunshot, a family of elephants approaches the muddy pond. The Beninese guide, scarred on both cheeks, nods knowingly. "They are coming to drink," he smiles. Continue reading "Pendjari: the Elephant Sleeps Tonight"

North to the Sahel

I was glad to be leaving Cotonou as we rumbled northward in the already warm early morning air. It’s easy to get lost in Africa’s capital cities while the bulk of Africa lies elsewhere in a form that’s so distinct and so vibrant. We were headed to Pendjari National Park, to see some wildlife and catch a glimpse of life in the Sahel, the vast, semi-arid zone that forms the transition between the moist tropical coastline and the breathtaking Sahara.

We departed with two friends from Colombia and France, taking turns at the wheel of our fantastic Land Rover Adventuremobile as we worked our way up the latitude lines of my map. But every map I’ve ever seen of Africa resorts to ruse in order to fit the continent on a conveniently-sized sheet of paper. Africa is unspeakably immense, and even tiny Benin wedged against the Atlantic coast is bigger than it looks. Pendjari park lies against the Burkina Faso border in northwest Benin, and is a full 700 kilometers from Cotonou, and a decent ten hours of driving. Continue reading "North to the Sahel"

The Shifting Shoreline of the Gulf of Guinea

Benin Coastline with Waves

Long gone are the days when the West African coastline looked either insipid or grim, though large stretches of it look as uninhabited as it did in the days of Conrad. But the seas remain dangerous and, even where the indelible mark of human intervention has changed the coastline temporarily, nature continues to dominate to this day. In fact, the shoreline along the Gulf of Guinea remains in some ways, as dangerous as ever. Continue reading "The Shifting Shoreline of the Gulf of Guinea"

Living Large in Cotonou

Cotonou is more of a large town than a small city. Even by Nicaraguan standards it’s unassuming, and yet it’s the economic capital of Benin (Porto Novo to the east remains the political capital, a bifurcation no one seems to mind). It’s an easy town to navigate: three major roads – still just one narrow lane in each direction – run east to west lengthwise from one side of town to the other and parallel to the beach. The one that runs closest to the shoreline passes the city’s two best hotels, the port, the French embassy, and the airport, forming somewhat of a spine to the city. To the north, Livingstone Street supports many of the city’s better restaurants.

A pair of monuments, the open air market, and a couple of distinctive buildings like the Palais de Congrès, the international convention center, the Catholic cathedral and a handful of mosques comprise the only distinctive landmarks attributable to humankind; the lagoon to the north, the ocean to the south, and the mouth of the river define the rest of the city’s landmarks. Neat concrete buildings, sometimes surfaced with ceramic tile, line the city’s commercial district. The city is architecturally rather nondescript, lacking high rise office buildings, parks or green areas, or even really very much in the way of entertainment. But it’s essentially clean, more or less organized, and a decent place to live. We have yet to find any shanty towns of tin hovels and the miserable living spaces of the destitute. Life is organized around the work day and the family, the law is generally respected and the city is essentially orderly. The latter is no small accomplishment worldwide, judging by the state of things. Continue reading "Living Large in Cotonou"

Guzzlin' Nigeria's Finest

You think you’ve got gas problems at home? Try pulling over for a couple of liters of gas in Benin. Prices are no better here than elsewhere, and would be more expensive still if the source weren’t contraband passed over the border from nearby Nigeria; low transport costs keep prices reasonable relative to places that need to import across long distances, like every inland country to the north of Benin. But the quality of the fuel is miserable and its impurities lead to high, sustained levels of air pollution as it courses through the veins of the millions of cheap or dilapidated motorcycles that wend their way through Benin’s capital. A trip across Cotonou with the windows open can asphyxiate even the most intrepid.

The next issue is the distribution network. The occasional legitimate gas station can be found across the nation, and they look essentially like gas stations anywhere in the developed world. But everywhere else the burgeoning demand for fuel is satisfied by individuals who deal in the contraband Nigerian stuff, carting it around in 5- and 10 gallon plastic jugs, and foisting it roadside in big glass vessels that glow like mahogany in the afternoon sun. Pull up in front of one of these places and they’ll siphon, funnel, or just pour the jugs straight into your tank. Throughout much of the north, I’m told, this is the only gas you’ll find. Continue reading "Guzzlin' Nigeria's Finest"

Afri-Mutts!

Afrimutts!

Somehow, deciding to move across the globe and make Africa our home for a couple of years wasn’t frightening. But the idea of adopting an animal was. Meet Piñuela (on the left) and Pendjari (right). They’re sister and brother, and both a Basenji mix. Continue reading "Afri-Mutts!"

The View from the Other Side

I grew up on the Atlantic shore and spent countless hours as a kid in row boats poking up tidal creeks, sailing through salty bays, or swimming in the Atlantic's surf. Long Island's beaches remain my favorite in both summer and winter, and a place my soul feels at home. But as my dad and I dodged the incoming waves and paddled out beyond the surf, he'd warn me, "watch out for the current or you'll be pulled out to sea and wind up in Africa." Continue reading "The View from the Other Side"

Agoudas: the Brazilians of Benin

AgoudasIn the 18th century some of the millions of slaves that were yanked from Benin and inland wound up in plantations in Brazil. There, over the course of a couple of generations they learned Portuguese and grew integrated in Brazilian customs and traditions. When they were emancipated, they returned to the land of their ancestors, Benin, but brought with them their Brazilian ways.

Anyone who's ever looked closely at a map of the Atlantic might have wondered if South America and Africa couldn't just nestle into each other like a pair of spoons. And plate techtonics theory posits that in the Earth's prehistory that's exactly what the land mass looked like, northern Brazil and Venezuela fitting up against Ghana and Benin long before drifting plates caused the continents to drift to their current positions.

But Brazil and Benin have been connected more recently than that by culture and human destiny. I first learned about this curious bit of history in Benin, when my hotel suddenly began filling up with Brazilians, and the Beninese flag on every second flagpole along the length of the hotel's property was replaced by the Brazilian's bold "Ordem e Progreso." "What's going on?" I asked one of the Beninese hotel staff. Continue reading "Agoudas: the Brazilians of Benin"

The Sahara from 10,000 Meters

The dimensions of the Sahara Desert required my mind to stretch itself in able to fit the desert in. It is enormous, and maybe even bigger than that. We left Paris in the early hours of the afternoon and crossed the winter Mediterranean, which lay blanketed with clouds, and penetrated the African continent in Algeria, where the clouds gave way. From my airplane's window I looked down and saw villages, roads, and little bodies of water with flat edges where they pressed up against embankments. But minutes later the villages began to diminish, and minutes after that as I looked down the landscape was empty of the signs of human habitation. Continue reading "The Sahara from 10,000 Meters"