Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Africa

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We were excited to finally be heading to Africa!

The last two weeks went by in a flash! We packed up our bags from Texas, said goodbye to our friends and teachers at the ISC (International Support Center) and boarded a flight to Africa via Belgium.

The multiple flights and connections, multiple time zones, and languages blurred as we hit three continents in the span of 36 hours. We touched down in the port city of Cotonou, where the Africa Mercy is currently docked, and felt the heat of the city hit us in a wave. We clambered out into the airport, grabbed our bags and hurriedly met a few friendly Mercy Ships crew who agreed to take half of our things directly to the ship while we kept the other half for our trip into the north.

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The lake city of Ganvie can be seen below out the airplane window. People there live on stilt houses above the water.

Suddenly, the second wave of sounds and smells of loud talking, taxi drivers, diesel exhaust and lights hit us. If you took the noise of Wall street, the lights of the Vegas strip, and the friendliness and crowdedness of a packed church potluck or the student section of a football game – mixed them together and then made them all black Africans wearing brightly and ornately colored suits, you get an idea of what Cotonou is like.

Traffic is another thing which is always startling when visiting other countries. The word “flow” takes on an entirely different meaning when you are driving here in Africa. Drivers are extremely skilled at passing, sometimes within fractions of an inch, obstacles of all shapes and sizes including hundreds of motorcycles, carts, wheelbarrows, motorcycle drawn carts, goats, chickens, children, and ladies carrying all sorts of wares on their heads. Honking is to tell people you’re coming or to let people know you are there. It happens frequently, often, and has no ill will in it. We were quite used to it after just one or two days. When pulling up to stop at a shop, our driver frequently pulled the whole van straight up and over the curb, straddling the sidewalk on a busy but narrow two way street.

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Benin “gas station” with gas sold by the bottle

Another specific even that caught my attention was on our way back to Cotonou this last Friday. On the larger highways we would get up to 70 or 80 kph. Often on these highways, we passed smaller villages with “gas stations” (see picture), where children, goats, chickens, and ladies carrying various wares on their head abound. To alert you that you’re in the village, each has about 5 or 10 speed bumps, which if you hit going 80 kph might launch the whole van, passengers and luggage alike, airborne. However, our skilled driver Andre knew just when to slow down right at the right moments.

There were also road blocks though, and these consist of fences/gates which are covering both sides of the road which force people into a one-lane passage to do a sort-of “S” pattern through the gates. For several of the road blocks the traffic was lined up in either direction and we had to wait. However, for this particular one, we saw the gates ahead, but the soldiers/policemen must have been taking their afternoon siesta because all the drivers were just driving through. However, without someone directing traffic, this just becomes a funnel for both oncoming lanes to try to sneak through the single lane space before the oncoming traffic does. I spied the gates up ahead and noticed that our van was not slowing due to the soldiers not being posted (and none of the other sparse traffic was stopping or slowing). Then we noticed an oncoming fruit truck “Camione” barreling towards the gate from the opposite direction. It was one of the larger trucks which carries produce and supplies in and out all over the country. Many of the trucks here are older models, looking like they came from the 50s or 60s era. It’s dusty and cracked white front like many of the other trucks here was somewhat rusted around the edges and like most things here, grimy. We got closer. The truck got closer. People on motorcycles slipped in and out in front of us, zipping and honking horns to let us know they are there. We moved into the center of the road to “thread the needle” between the two gates. The truck did the same. We got closer, we could read the Chinese company name on the side of the truck, we could see the tire treads, and the driver’s face. By the time we slipped through and quickly moved back to our lane, there was less than a second and the truck was rushing by us with its dust and diesel smell. It was quite a near miss but neither of the drivers blinked an eye. That’s a taste of driving here in Africa.

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The “mystery ball” turned out to be corn mash cooked in banana leaves…could have used some salt!

Finally, we found ourselves in the town of Abomey, Benin. We stayed at the Sun City Hotel and enjoyed some comforts while working during the hot hot days at Le Maison D’Esporie The House of Hope. The orphanage currently houses 61 children and pays for them to attend school, including a culinary school for some of the high school graduates. Each morning, we shook off the jet lag and went to work, travelling by van across town through the menagerie of shops and shacks, past the Historic King’s Palace and Abomey jail. Every day or so, we took the 5 minute van ride back into town where we learned a little bit about bargaining, local produce, customs, and languages. In Abomey, the main people group is Fon and they all speak the Fon tribal langauge. Most here also speak the French language (perfectly by the upper class, and less fluently by others) and all of the trading is done with French numbers. Every 5 days there was a larger market (think farmers market only much crazier) in the neighboring city of Bohicon, which we found to be large, colorful, and foreign. The foods presented are an assortment of fruits, corn, cassava, yams, peanuts and fish. Some of the more interesting foods were a twice boiled (flavorless?) corn mush which is packed in green banana leaf balls for travelers.

The oranges are still green colored when ripe, but have heavy thick skins and are not particularly sweet or flavorful. Bananas here come in all sizes. The pineapples and papayas here are wonderful, cheap, plentiful, and in season. Other things we saw at the market include sandals, shoes, purses, bags, and cloth of every color. Other stores at the big market had beaded jewelry, drinks, headphones from china, and assortments of things. I keep seeing the word “diverse” which is the same in French and I think it sums up stores in Abomey nicely. Most stores have a diverse, semi-organized, ramshackle feel to them as if they just found this space and are temporarily occupying it until someone kicks them out. The largest hardware store that we visited, for example, had approximately the inside floor space of a tiny tiny, cramped gas station back in the USA. Instead of shelves: pipes, fittings, paint supplies, and nails were all hung from the walls or stacked at the base of the wall. In the center of the shop sat a huge pile of bags of cement and coiled wire, just as if thrown there by the men who unloaded it. In one corner, the matron sat behind a scuffed pine desk with usually two or three customers who are in the process of bargaining with her. Around the outside of the cement pile was the “aisle” which was just enough for one person to squeeze between the cement and the piles of paint supplies, but it didn’t go all the way around because it was interrupted by a pile of corrugated sheet metal for roofing, which one had to stand on top of to access the back wall. In the other corner was a pile of re-bar which poked it’s long rusted ends out and threatened to scratch everyone’s legs who passed by. Customers are expected to climb around the place or ask one of it’s 2 or 3 hired workers to fetch the item that they are looking for (harder for us with limited language skills). In any case, it was an adventure and something new to learn every day.

One thing that I’ve noticed here is a tenacity and ingenuity to make things work. Whereas we might be more inclined to say that something can’t be done for lack of money or resources, Africans have many ways to make things happen regardless. This is something that I am learning and that I really admire about this place. Though there is poverty, there is a wealth of knowledge of repair and a spirit of making things happen using the things around you.