Benin

26th of September – 21st of October 2019:

Once we arrived in Benin, there was no checkpoint at all and after a few kilometers, we reached a brand-new tarred road. At the police station, we got our entry stamp and the police officers allowed us to camp behind the building. 

From the police station, we organized a Beninese SIM-card and visited a Tata house. Opposite of our overnight place, there was a family with such a house and the friendly owner showed us the interior. In the old days, people used the Tata houses as fortresses against the neighboring tribes. Today, many of the impressive buildings collapsed, so the owners need to renovate them each year after the rainy season. Most families only use the houses to practice fetishism, for example Voodoo.  

The brand-new main road led us over two passes onto a plateau. The second pass was steep and we used the not yet opened tar road, which made the ascent much easier for us. The scorching sun let us sweat a lot and we were glad to arrive in the city of Natitingou. At the Swiss project “Centre de Formation Liweitari (CFL), Benjamin, a Swiss civil servant, expected us already. He just arrived one day before us from Switzerland. Joel, who cycled with us the first few months, told us that his cousin would travel to Benin and Benjamin even brought some spare parts for us.  

The CFL project trains electricians, polytechnicians, bricklayers and welders. To support the training of the apprentices, several civil servants come here and support the education.  

However, the project does missionary work as well and for us this fact downgrades the otherwise helpful project. It is not the first time that we get to know a project and suddenly realize that one of the main concerns of the project is the conversion of the locals. For us this gives those projects a stale aftertaste. 

The founder of the project wants to educate local farmers, since they are inefficient and burn for example all biomass, instead of creating a compost.  

Together with Beni, we discovered the local cuisine of the city and treated us with some luxury meals like spaghetti carbonara and Shawarma. At the market, we finally found dog meat and were surprised how good it tasted. We are sure that most people would not be able to differentiate between dog meat and pork meat, since it is so similar. The dogs kept on short leashes in front of the street food vendors would probably make most dog lovers angry.  

For a change, we did a trip with a car and visited the Kota-waterfall not far from the city. The refreshing water in the pool and the calm atmosphere made us stay for some hours. A Swiss missionary family from the French part of Switzerland was there as well and invited us for diner without hesitation.  

Since forever, we did not enjoy a barbecue, «Spätzli» (a typical Swiss dish) and desserts and therefore we appreciated the cooking efforts of Lucy and Damien even more. We ate a lot, swam in the on-site swimming pool and enjoyed nice conversations despite the typical Swiss language barrier.  

Lucy even baked a plaited loaf just for us, gave us a glass of mango jam and the leftovers from the chocolate cake.  

Thanks to Beni, we could continue with four brand new tires and record our route with a new sports watch. With the old tires, we cycled almost 20’000 km, which really speaks for the quality of the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.  

Another hot day made us sweat a lot and from the lost salt, there were traces early in the day on our shirts and pants.  

The formerly tarred road led us directly southwards. Nowadays, it looks more like a rag rug and it is troublesome to ride it. At least there was not much traffic and therefore the dust in the air was not that bad.  

Slowly, the mighty baobabs disappeared and the landscape got lusher. In contrary to Senegal, the baobab trees were in the current rainy season green and carried hundreds of fruits.  

In a larger village, we wanted to charge our laptop and surprisingly found out that there was no electricity. The last time we had this situation was a while back and showed us that Benin is not as developed as we thought.  

During a break, we asked a boy with big, brown eyes, if he goes to school. He said no in a sad and reserved way. To the question why, he answered that, there is not enough money for the school fee. Such moments sink in deeply and make us realize how lucky we are.  

From time to time, we realize how normal certain things got for us in western Africa. For example, that most people eat only using their hands in restaurants and delightfully lick all their fingers when finished. In addition, we regularly see mothers with a huge pile of wood on their head walking on the side of the road, followed by their children, who all carry something as well. Such scenes were extraordinary in the beginning, but by now, other situations catch our eyes.  

A rainy night showed us that the rainy season was not quite finished yet and that we needed more patience. According to statistics, the rain should stop at the end of October in this region of West Africa.  

The further south we travelled in Benin, the more kids and even adults ask us for a “cadeau” (gift). Most people at least greeted us friendly saying “bonsoir” before they asked in a kind of singsong for a present. Some people screamed directly “Yovo” (white men) and this made us somewhat angry. Unfortunately, people in Africa believe that all Europeans or whites are rich and therefore can give something to everybody without any problems.  

The landscape in the direction of the Beninese coast was not spectacular at all; just some rock formations impressed us for a while, until we continued cycling along the dead straight road.  

Since we left Natitingou, we cycled almost 500 kilometers in five days. The main reason for the fast transition was the insecurity of the Nigerian visa. Either we would find a solution in Cotonou to get the visa or we would have no other option than flying directly to Cameroon. In addition, we had to organize further visas for the following countries.  

In Abomey, the old capital of the king, are still many palaces of this time. We found the palaces rather uninteresting and therefore skipped the museum as well. The kingdom existed between 1600 and 1894. A main feature of that time was the slave trade and brought a lot of money to the former empire.  

Instead of always cycling on tarred roads in Benin, we decided to take a shortcut on one of the small gravel roads. Already after a couple of hundred meters, we were completely dirty and wet, since it was raining quite a lot the last few days. In a small village, we asked if it was possible to visit their voodoo shrine, since we just entered the main region of this traditional religion. One of the only men who spoke French, explained us a bit their traditions and the procedure of such a ceremony.  

Voodoo has more than 60 million followers and has its origin in West Africa. With the slave trade, voodoo reached the Caribbean. There is no closed religious’ community and many different groups exist. In a central position of the voodoo rituals is the sacrifice of an animal or luxury food. At the same time, the priest, the community, the celebration and dancing to drum music is important as well.  

The last time we asked a village chief for a place to stay was some time ago. The family was rather shy but had a room for us anyway. In the morning, we waited until the heavy rain stopped and talked with the family despite the language barrier. They asked us many questions and we bombarded them with some as well. For example, a woman wanted to know if we eat the same meals in Europe as in Benin. In return, we asked if they use contraceptives. Everyone said it is not the culture and we were not surprised, since there were so many naked children running around us.  

The muddy and narrow gravel road led us through beautiful villages and in between were lots of maize, beans, soy and sweet potato plantations. The villages were under water, everything was full of mud in the rainy season and people walked barefoot. At a junction in the middle of nowhere, we ate a plate of rice with spaghetti and said no to the head of rat on the menu.  

At a lake, we slept in a classroom for the first time and kids annoyed us in the evening with begging and screaming.  

The friendly village chief gave us even a plastic bottle full of Moringa, which is a plant who helps to prevent malaria.  

Due to the flat terrain, we reached the administrative capital quickly. Before, we did a detour to the slave route starting from the former slave market, ending at the gate of no return, where the slaves started their horrible journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  

With Couchsurfing, we found an American family who offered us a home during our stay in Cotonou. Since almost two months, we enjoyed our first warm shower and felt finally clean again.  

Devidyal and Brandon both teach at an international school. After three years in China, they are now already more than two years in West Africa. Fortunately, their daughter Trinidad visits the same school. In contrary to the Beninese schools, the kids do not have to wear uniforms. Many of the local school kids must go to school with their washed out and shredded uniforms and therefore the strict dress code loses its purpose.  

They have a gardener and a cook, who take care of the house and prepare warm meals. Thanks to their generosity, we could profit from this luxury as well and were glad not to search restaurants in the neighborhood for once. Like this, we could focus on regeneration and the organization of our visas.  

Already on our first day in Cotonou, we visited the embassies of Cameroon, Gabon and Nigeria. Additionally, we visited the Swiss consulate. For the Nigerian visa, one should have a residency in Benin. For us it is impossible to get one, since we would have to stay at least six months in the country. Valérie, the Swiss consul was interested in our project and promised to call the ambassador of the Nigerian embassy for us.  

The main problem was that we needed to know the exact entry date for the visas of Gabon and Cameroon. Since we did not even know if we were able to enter Nigeria, we had to postpone those applications.  

Another visit at the Nigerian embassy showed us, that there was no chance for us to get anything. Even the Nigerians were desperate due to the behavior of the staff of the embassy. They did not even take us seriously and after a couple of minutes, we had to leave the premise with lowered heads.  

After Valérie called the ambassador to explain, our unique situation and he allowed us to present our documents to the immigration officer. This officer was rather unfriendly like his colleague and explained us that we needed an invitation from someone in Nigeria.  

Therefore, we asked our contacts in Nigeria, which we organized during the last few weeks, if someone could organize an invitation letter for us. We returned with all necessary papers back to the embassy for the fourth time. The immigration officer called Mr. Nura welcomed us surprisingly friendly and told us immediately that he was not able to issue a visa for us. Apparently, he called his bosses in Nigeria and they told him that he should not issue any visas to tourists. The reason was probably the current security situation and therefore he did not want to take any responsibility.  

We were shocked and asked if there was an alternative. He said that there is a “visa on arrival”, which is only for businesspeople. After his explanation how to proceed, we left the embassy disappointed.  

Of course, we knew about this business visa available only on the internet. We just wanted to try the legal or correct way via the embassy first. However, we knew from other travelers that this endeavor was almost impossible.  

Therefore, we contacted Jeevan, whom we knew form Instagram. He clarified several times for us, which documents we would need and helped us with the process. Despite his absence due to a business trip, he was in contact with us day and night and patiently answered all our questions.  

A few days later, we organized all necessary documents. Then we completed the online form, which was difficult to understand in the beginning, and therefore took quite some time. In the middle of this process, a lightning temporarily destroyed the fuse and we had to improvise to get internet connection for the payment.  

One and a half days later, we luckily received the approval and were relieved for now. Anyway, even with the confirmation, we were not sure if we could enter the country. The documents we created were all totally fabricated and the company we were in contact with, did not really employ two Swiss cyclists.  

Cotonou is the economical capital of Benin. Due to the port, it became an important trading center for countries without access to the ocean, like Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Exports include petroleum products, bauxite and iron. 

The Dantokpa market is one of the largest markets in West Africa. One can really find everything and it is easy to get lost in the narrow passages. We hardly were able to pass with our bicycles and had to get out of the way when women and men carrying heavy bags, baskets or other things walked towards us.  

After asking many people where to find the voodoo section of the market, we finally found it. In Togo, one must pay a lot of money for just entering this part of the market. Here it is less touristic and the shop owners only want money when taking pictures. The stalls were full of dead animals. There were heads of crocodiles, dogs, horses, chimpanzees and antelopes. The sweet scent in the air was rather disgusting and reminded why people normally burn or bury dead animals.  

In the market, we saw many people with scarifications in their face. In the countryside of Benin, this traditional way of body decoration is still wide- spread. According to the patterns, one knows to which tribe the people belong. In the interior, we witnessed an old man who scarified his grandchildren below the breast. Just using a razor blade without any disinfectant or bandage.  

Since some time, we had no malaria infection and were glad to travel with full energy. Unfortunately, Adrian got malaria once again. Luckily, after the three-day treatment, he did not have the symptoms anymore and felt better.  

In Lomé, we probably had the most mosquitos so far in Western Africa. Even in the mornings, they attacked us heavily. Especially after heavy rain events, we hardly spent any time outside of our mosquito net. Even the strongest spray did not help anymore. In Benin, there were not many mosquitos, but still, we were bitten every day.  

Due to the high humidity, wounds heal extremely slowly. In Ghana, an insect stung Fabian and he had problems with this wound for weeks. Suddenly, the wound was ulcerated and he had to visit a hospital to get some antibiotics and a disinfectant. In a typical African moment, the power went out during the treatment and it was pitch-dark.  

During our long stay in Cotonou, we developed a friendship with Valérie and she generously invited us several times to eat at her place. We enjoyed the interesting conversations in the relaxed atmosphere.  

Since the 20th of September, the border between Nigeria and Benin is officially closed. All people we asked, said something different and we were not sure if it was possible to cross the border. The Nigerians closed the border due to the smuggling of petrol and food items in both directions.  

On the day our visa for Nigeria started, we cycled to the border hoping everything would work out. Since our visa for Benin was finished the same day, we risked quite a lot if they would refuse us to enter.  

Quickly, we reached the border and got the exit stamp for Benin, before we talked to the immigration officers for entering Nigeria.  

Our focus in Benin was clearly in getting the Nigerian visa. We spent two weeks in Cotonou and could relax a lot, but the insecure continuation of our trip stressed us anyhow. Despite all that, we visited some places in this culturally strongly shaped country and made awesome acquaintances.  

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