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Cotonou in Six Seconds

I don't often publish things here that aren't my own, but I can't resist linking to this fantastic piece of stop-motion video, showing my old home — Cotonou, Benin — over the course of a day.

Cotonou in Motion (Benin, Africa) from Mayeul Akpovi on Vimeo.

A gorgeous bit of work by Mayeul Akpovi, whose last name shows he is probably Beninese himself. Awesome to see Africans taking pride in their home! And damned if it doesn't fill me with a strong nostalgia for the place I called home from 2006–2010. Who'd have thought?

The King and I

With the King of Pobe

This is a picture of one of my fondest moments in Benin, where I lived and worked for four years. I'm standing next to the King of Pobé, and as you can see from the smile, I'm happy.

Benin retains extensive royalty, and at most public meetings of importance you can expect a king or two to be present. They are treated with extreme deference and legitimate respect, despite their economic circumstances (after the meeting you might see three kings pile into a decrepit car for the ride home, and they seem to be often little wealthier than many of their subjects). They are given the seats of honor in the front row of meetings, where they wave their scepters when something pleases them; the scepters are often elaborately carved hardwood, but sometimes look like dog-tail flyswatters. Continue reading "The King and I"

Porto Novo, the Almost Capital

Porto Novo, Benin

Once in elementary school, and again in Indonesia when I had a lot of free time and a map of the world, I set out to memorize the world’s capitals. It seemed important at the time, and an easy enough challenge anyway: every country had one capital, and it was just a matter of making a list. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Since 2005 I’ve worked and lived in two countries that had two capitals each: first Bolivia, whose political capital is Sucre and economic capital La Paz, and then Benin, whose political capital is Porto Novo and economic capital Cotonou. And in neither case did anyone find it out of the ordinary.

Writes Stuart Butler, “On one side [Porto Novo’s] got Cotonou, its younger, upstart neighbour 40 minutes to the west who’s gone and stolen all the facilities, all the jobs, all the entertainment and all the hopes; and an hour to the east it’s literally chewed up, mashed about, digested and chucked back up by the immense belly of the city that is Lagos. But Porto Novo isn’t overawed by its constantly growing cousins; in fact it just sits there coolly claiming to be the capital that it is not. And it’s all the more endearing for it.” Continue reading "Porto Novo, the Almost Capital"

Pas Loin de la Barre

The bar, the shifting bar: Sleeping menace, slumbering hippo. A cat beneath the carpet, slinking eastwards, never in the same place twice. Now the waves are breaking in deeper water, but paddle out and suddenly they're behind you; turn to chase them and there's a monster rearing on your tail. The tide drops and the swell builds, now lumpy and gentle, now peaking with enough force to lift you off your board. The wind picks up, scattering the water's skin in a confusion of spray and chop. The bright sun makes a beeline for the zenith, penetrating the sea, now turquoise, the foam blown white and bright. Continue reading "Pas Loin de la Barre"

Lac Aheme and Possotome

fisherman, possotome

The sun fell behind the Possotomè hills as it does in the tropics: quickly. The shadows stretched over the lake, and we dined on lobster and grilled flatfish over rice. The hotel's restaurant stood on stilts over the lake surface, and the water lapped gently beneath us as the lights reflected over the water.

I retired to the extreme edge of the dock with a whiskey and my journal, where I saw something I hadn't seen in ages: stars. We see some stars in Cotonou, but the lights of the capital preclude much of a show. Here in the countryside, there were few lights to speak of, and the sky was ablaze in a moonless night. Orion reclined over the lake's eastern shore, and Mars and Sirius glowed like embers beneath his shoulder. In the distance we heard the drums of a celebration, or a Vaudoun rite. Continue reading "Lac Aheme and Possotome"

Live from the Mouth of the River of Death: Life in Cotonou, Benin

It's hard not to evoke Cotonou's name in the local language, Fon, because the expression "River of Death" turns heads. But in Benin, West Africa, the past and the present are the same, and the future and the present are indistinguishable. So it is that, irregardless of what Cotonou is today, it will forever retain the soul of an African slaving hub at the mouth of a river that carried an unfortunate cargo down to the waiting slave ships. And for the moment, Cotonou is my home, and this message is coming to you live from the River. Continue reading "Live from the Mouth of the River of Death: Life in Cotonou, Benin"

Colony's End in Gran Popo

In August 2009, Benin celebrated its 49th year of independence. For an American whose country was last the colony of another nation 233 years ago, that's pretty impressive: even from the Latin American perspective, where the colonialists were vanquished nearly 150 years ago, 49 years is an impressively short period of time. It's a sobering trip to walk east from Gran Popo along the shores of the Mono River through what remains of that village's now ancient, colonial architecture. Blame economics, neglect, differing priorities, or the simple avarice of the Atlantic coast's shifting coastline. But the little that remains of France's colonial influence in Gran Popo is not far from oblivion. That makes it an inspiring destination. Continue reading "Colony's End in Gran Popo"

The Mono River

fishing on the mono river

The elephant ear of Africa stretched endlessly to our north through deserts and rubble. A young Fon by the name of Mathieu was at the tiller of our small outboard; he was an entrepreneur of the sort Africa's economic future desperately depends, and had proposed the trip to us with a hand lettered brochure on which he had painstakingly illustrated the boat trip's highlights. The Mono, sleek with the ripples of the morning's southwesterly wind, slipped beneath us to the hum of the outboard and the whisper of the morning breeze.

As our low craft slipped through wooded islets it was hard not to appreciate the tenacity of the river's march towards the rumpled Atlantic. The river's course widened appreciably in our descent: low villages of concrete and adobe huts watched us from the river's edge, children splashed each other in the warm water, and men strained to push their wooden craft in, laden with nets. Continue reading "The Mono River"

The Pines of Cotonou

B&W Cotonou

These are images of Cotonou taken in the 1940s when Benin was still known as Dahomey, and Dahomey was still a French possession. It would remain so for another 20 years. It was still, by any stretch of the imagination, little more than a biggish village, with a sandy main street lined with small shops, a couple of well organized neighborhoods, and the outlet of the Nokoué river. Commerce centered around the wooden pier that jutted out beyond the breakers into the Atlantic, and hosted all manner of steam ships calling from Europe. Continue reading "The Pines of Cotonou"

Home By the Sea: the Paillote


If I had to point to my one favorite place in all of Benin, I'd draw your attention to a place that doesn't show up on any maps, isn't mentioned in any travel guide, and a decade from now probably won't even still exist: our paillote at the edge of the Atlantic. Unassuming, uncomplicated, and thoroughly authentic, the paillote has been a place of refuge and of reflection since approximately our arrival in 2006.

The paillote (from the French paille: "straw") is hardly well made, consisting of a rickety wooden frame and woven palm frond roof, set on a concrete platform facing the ocean. Every year we had to fight to get it repaired, as rain and wind take their toll over the course of the seasons. But a more peaceful place you could hardly ask for: spartan, alone. Cotonou's cell phone network barely reaches the place, thankfully. There's no electricity, little light, no pavement, just the red, dirt of the long beach road that stretches from the city, the dark stands of palm trees thick with the call of African long tailed crows. Continue reading "Home By the Sea: the Paillote"

In the Bones of the Kingdom: Abomey

The history of Benin and the history of Abomey aren’t all that different, Benin’s original name, Dahomey (“In the belly of Dan”) being the name of the kingdom whose royal palace was in Abomey. So early one Saturday morning we drove up to see it.

Abomey’s reputation is larger than life. Says Stewart Butler, “With walls made of blood and thrones of human heads, the royal city of Abomey is ... after Timbuktu and Zanzibar ... the most celebrated of old African towns. [The name] was once whispered in fearful awe by the citizens of the surrounding kingdoms as well as in the civilised drawing rooms of 19th century Europe. Its kings, descended from the son of a princess who slept with a panther, were protected by the only genuine Amazon army the world has ever known, and they lived a life of extreme brutality.” Continue reading "In the Bones of the Kingdom: Abomey"

H is for Harmattan

harmattan dust

The Harmattan descends upon Benin in a pale, chilling mist, obscuring the horizon, blotting out the buildings in other neighborhoods, and filling the air with choking dust. No other season I’ve experienced, from the monsoons of Southeast Asia to the 6 month Central American drought, is as oppressive. It’s hard not to be impressed by just how powerful the Harmattan really is, and in Benin, the Harmattan is not just a wind, it’s a season. Continue reading "H is for Harmattan"

Chasing the Whale: the Tourism Industry Starts Here

When the captain started the diesel engines the giant steel military ship shuddered to life. It backed away clumsily from the dock and pointed towards the port's narrow mouth. Then, pressing past the tip of the rock jetties and through the first of the Atlantic's first swells, we were seaward-bound. Our whale-watching expedition in Benin had begun. Continue reading "Chasing the Whale: the Tourism Industry Starts Here"

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"