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.
If it doesn’t sound safe to you, you’re right. Never mind the fumes, the rampant spillage, the gasoline-soaked soil under every little mom-and-pop gas station, the fuel basking in the tropical sunlight and heat, the threat posed to anyone who showed up to refill smoking a cigarette (thankfully, I’ve hardly seen anyone at all smoking in Benin – a small mercy): imagine the risk of explosion. Sadly, that’s exactly what happens from time to time. Just in July a gas tanker tipped over at roadside and began spilling its contents onto the ground. Locals appeared with plastic containers to catch the gas and bring it home for their own use or to sell. By the time the tanker exploded in a ball of flames a crowd of at least 50 people were in the vicinity. 15 died immediately, but another 30 lived in agony for another day or two before succumbing to the third degree burns. It’s awful to think about.
Everything in Africa is small scale except perhaps the wildlife, and buying and selling gasoline a liter at a time provides an income for many a Beninese family. So the next time you complain about gas back home, remember you could be a lot worse off. From safety to quality of the gas to a system that ensures environmental regulations are set and adhered to, we could suffer more than we do from simple high prices.
Final note: we have seen one Hummer in downtown Cotonou: the quintessence of extravagance back in the United States interjected into an environment that only emphasizes its absurdity. We got a good laugh thinking about pulling a Hummer up to one of these country filling stations and watching as the Beninese pour jug after jug of Nigeria’s finest into the bottomless gas tank. Courtesy of my friend and colleague Joshua Berman I end this essay with a (one finger) salute to the Humvee, the very picture of everything that Benin is not: http://www.fuh2.com.
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