Benin

This is going to be a quick and dirty recap, since I should have been in bed an hour ago to get enough sleep before heading out for my next shoot, in southeastern Senegal, tomorrow at 7am.

I arrived in Cotonou on a Saturday night, which meant I had all of Sunday to myself before starting the shoot that Monday. I walked around town in the drizzle. One of the first things I saw was this barbershop, which seemed to promise to turn you into a handsome American president with just a few snips of the scissors.

I ate at a restaurant filled with Beninois in their Sunday best. In Benin, that means matching African wax pants and button-downs or booboos for the men and African wax dresses with matching headpieces for the women. It was wax fabric central and my eyes were delighted. (You’ll see some of that further down…)

I tried two new-to-me West African foods: amiwo, which is kind of like cornmeal polenta made with tomato sauce mixed in, and akassa, which is a more gelatinous version without tomato and with a slightly fermented taste. I loved the former, I hated the latter. (The circle-shaped things on the plate on the right are pieces of boiled yam.)

Midcentury African did not disappoint in Benin. To wit:

And look at this beauty:

And I have no idea when the building below dates from but it is a showstopper. Its decay only adds to its intrigue.

Same for this French colonial-style one.

I spent the day in meetings on Monday and then hightailed it to Vlisco, the Chanel of African wax fabric.

It is the original Dutch company that brought Indonesian wax fabric to Africa, where it took on a life of its own. I didn’t realize until after I had made my selections, but Vlisco costs about ten times as much as the wax fabric I found in Dakar’s HLM market and in Monrovia. Oopsie.

Below is my favorite of “the ones that got away.” It is special sparkly fabric made for Vlisco’s 170th anniversary this year. It cost about $150 for 6 yards or something like that, and you were not allowed to buy just 1 yard. I will remember it fondly…

I was overwhelmed by how many beautiful fabrics there were, so I picked out about ten of my favorites, brought them up to the front, and went through the prices with the salesperson one by one, finally whittling my huge stack down to three selections that cost me almost $200. I justified it by telling myself that my per diem for the week would absorb the ridiculous splurge.

I went a little photo crazy trying to document the beauty of the store itself.

Below, the cornflower blue fabric in the bottom row, fourth from the left, is one of the three I ended up with. The third and fifth ones on the top are two that did not quite make the cut. (I spent so long deliberating that the store closed and they threatened to power down the register if I didn’t make up my mind already.)

The next day I headed about an hour away from Cotonou (but only about 20 km north) to a cluster of lake villages for the shoot. They are entire communities built on stilts in the water. The most famous and populous one is Ganvie, which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit. But I certainly got a good taste of the place after four days in the area.

I found this staircase descending into the water pretty awesome.

And here’s a float-up barbershop.

We had to transfer from the bigger motor boat we were in to a small pirogue/canoe to get to some of the more remote houses.

Here we are approaching one.
H

Some of the villages have areas of solid ground. Below is a land-based community sensitization session about family planning, complete with a song-and-drum performance praising contraceptives. (And you can see how amazingly Beninois men put together their wax outfits.)

Kids with homemade tambourines.

Getting stuck in plants on the way back to dry land…

And back in Cotonou, where at every street corner a million mopeds lined up with women and men in African wax masterpieces. Of all the West African countries I’ve now been in, Benin takes their wax most seriously (and has the most mopeds, coincidentally).

A beautiful country, and one I’m not done with yet! (I want to go back in January for the Voodoo Festival and to sightsee beyond Cotonou and the lake villages.)

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One thought on “Benin

  1. Still loving your posts, Ruth! I only passed through Benin by bus on the way to Nigeria and remember the million mopeds in Cotonou, speeding along, many with whole families aboard!

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