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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.

We live in a residential area, not the nicest neighborhood in the city but it’s one of the better nonetheless and much of the city’s entrepreneur class are our neighbors. It’s hard to escape the images of poverty and suffering in the developing world, but every nation in the world no matter how poor retains a social hierarchy of entrepreneurs, the political and economic elite, and the expat bourgeoisie, some of which live lifestyles no different from the average middle or upper class American. Cotonou is no different. Our neighbor on one side is a businessman, on the other a development professional, across the street an ambassador.

In the residential areas a great deal of creativity and individualism has gone into the homes. While nothing is particularly striking, it’s clear people have tried to create interesting spaces taking advantage of aspects of African, Middle eastern, and Western elements: sweeping archways, interior courtyards for gardens or birds, fountains, crenellated rooftops, clay tile roofs, mirrored glass panels, shuttered overhangs. Some of it is appealing, and some of it is bizarre, like an architect’s sketchpad, successes and failures included.

The day begins around 6:30 with the call of birds outside in the palm trees and casuarina and the whining of the puppies downstairs. We breakfast on tea and toasted French bread. Just outside of the capital are a number of sandy beaches we visit on the weekends, but we sometimes explore the city on our bikes as well, if the rainy season weather permits. The French embassy runs a cultural center just blocks from our home and presents films, speakers, and musicians most nights of the week. Or if we need a break we just stay home to enjoy the pool, walk the puppies, or read books. We’ve got satellite tv in the upstairs living room presenting French language programming and a fast – but expensive – Internet connection. We’ve made a couple of Beninese friends, one of whom has invited us to his family’s village and organic farm just north of the city of Porto Novo.

Benin is African, foremost – in the physical characteristics of its people and their bright clothing, but Africa has long been influenced by other cultures and continues to be so to this day. Most of the better stores and businesses are run by the burgeoning Lebanese community, some of whom fly the Cedar flag from the balconies of their homes, and the Arab cultures – Libya in particular – play a growing and important role in the society. President Khadaffi has financed the construction of dozens of mosques around the nation.

The Chinese have financed the construction of a bevy of official buildings and amazingly sent their own construction teams of Chinese coolies, but the entrepreneurs have opened up a bunch of restaurants as well. And of course the Western donor community and more than one expat citizen play an important role in the local society, not to mention the economy. The least welcome foreigners are probably the Nigerians, who spill over the nation’s porous borders and hawk merchandise at street corners. They are blamed for most of the society’s problems, the way the Turks are in Germany, or the Mexicans in the United States, regardless of whether it’s true.

We have found just about everything we’ve wanted to buy, though shopping is a much different experience in Benin and the prices without exception are high (due to the expense incurred in importing). The importers keep the little shops stocked with European wine, Middle eastern juices, Chinese plastic wares, Indian spices, and African fabric. Like Indonesia or Nicaragua, you won’t find many clothing shops, but every neighborhood has a highly regarded tailor who can produce what you want; there’s no IKEA for buying prefabricated furniture, but it’s not hard to find a carpenter who can build to your whims. And where construction is concerned, the new home across the street never saw a single bulldozer arrive to dig out the foundation, but a team of coolies with shovels got the job done over the course of a week. Africa is exotic in so many ways, but what makes up the daily rhythm of life changes little across the world’s territories. And so we are living a life very similar to our life in Washington DC or Managua or El Hato or Yogyakarta. It’s just the details that are distinctive, and when hanging around with the Latino expats it’s easy for me to forget where I am.

That’s a brief overview of our lifestyle in Cotonou. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the traditional images of Africa, which with few exceptions are bleak. But we’re learning Africa is much more than starvation and war. Like elsewhere there are visionaries and office drones, entrepreneurs and the fatalistic, and families hoping to better their position in life. We’re happy to be here, happy to be learning so much and meeting such interesting people, and happy to let you know we are living well.


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