Far from home: Niger and Benin
I find myself in a tunnel of countries with only one way out
I have been traveling continuously for a very long time now. I have crossed more than 90 borders and have more expertise than most of the immigration officers I meet. I have seen snow turn to desert and mountains turn to flatlands. I have been submerged in the island life and now find myself on a giant continent. And it is adventurous! All this traveling has transformed me, from the way I think and all the way to redefining what's normal. I no longer think of leaving wherever I am, quiting the project and getting on an airplane as an option. I only know 1 way home and that is through the next 111 countries. It's strange how we often have the ability to get used to anything.
Passengers, poultry and a bicycle on top. Perfect.
Getting from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to Niamey in Niger was a small matter of a taxi, 2 busses, 2 minibuses and 2 motorcycle taxis. Crossing the border was not much different than anywhere else. I signed out on one side and signed in on the other. But before I got to walk across the bridge which divides Burkina Faso from Niger a heavyset immigration officer decided that he couldn't read my name on the immigration form. So with a slow hand he crossed it out and rewrote it with his own handwriting. Next he couldn't read my country...so he did the same...and that continued at a very slow pace throughout the entire form until the bus driver showed up to see what on earth was going on. At which point the immigration officer could read everything else :)
It was dark when I reached Niamey. Niamey is the capital of Niger and is in the south of Niger which is a huge country however mostly with desert. It is ill advised to go "anywhere" in Niger. These days a group of troublemakers called Boko Haram are operating in northern Nigeria and across the border to Niger. So stay away from there. I hear that it's pretty bad in and around Lake Chad to which is giving me some extra work.
I just thought that a map of the area might be helpful for you at this point.
But keep in mind that these countries are gigantic and that there are plenty of places to go without running into bad guys. Niamey is safe. Or as safe as any big city can be. The road leading from Burkina Faso to Niamey brings you through a spectacular beautiful landscape. Relatively flat and quite green as far as my eyes could reach.
Abdulai, the friendly security guard who offered me his home :)
As I mentioned it was dark when I reached Niamey. I put my duffel bag on my back and started walking. About 3 kilometers later I had reached what I thought was the Red Cross. I figured I would find a guesthouse nearby. But it was really a garage complex for the Red Cross and one of the security guards immediately offered that I could sleep in his home. So far so good?! Friendly country :) Sometimes I accept but this time I really didn't feel like being a visitor in someone's home. So I declined but accepted his offer to get on his motorcycle and head towards a hotel he knew.
My friend Mohammedou in the middle - looking sharp as always!
The next day I met with Mohammedou. A friend of a friend and now he is my friend too :) Although he is from Niger he is currently living in Turkey where he is studying and has learned the language. Well done! He's a bright, friendly fellow who I enjoyed spending time with. He introduced me to his friends and showed me around Niamey. A city which will keep you entertained for at least a few days. It lies beautifully on the Niger River - just like Bamako in Mali does. I would have sent Sarah in Bamako a message in a bottle while singing along to Stings hit, but the water flows the other way ;)
I like Niger. I like the people and the atmosphere. But did I ever see Niger? That's a yes and no. I guess? I saw a small corner of a large country and that's how it goes. I would love to return.
The national museum is something else. It also has a zoo, a handicrafts market and dinosaurs! :)
After only 3 nights I was off to Benin...
At the bus station:
- Do you want the ordinary ticket or the luxury?
- What is the difference?
- The luxury comes with air condition.
- And the price?
- The difference is CFA 2,000 ($3.30).
- I'll take the ordinary...
It did not take 14 hours to reach Cotonou in Benin. It took close to 22 hours! Why I do not know? Because this time I did some research to see what other people said and even online other travelers said 14 hours. I think the suspension in the rear of the bus was broken. The road was mostly good but where it wasn't me and the other passengers would be shot up towards the roof. On several occasions I had complete liftoff from my seat. Does that count as flying?
Ingrid in Togo put me in touch with Thierry in Benin. We had exchanged a few emails and Thierry quickly invited me to stay at his home with his family. In fact Thierry had been quite helpful long before I met him. As the bus finally approached Cotonou is was getting very late and I had naturally notified Thierry who didn't mind at all. In fact he came to pick me up way past midnight and brought me to his home to where I am now. And because I'm waiting for the invitation letter for Nigeria before I can apply for a visa I might be here for a while. And that's not a mad thing! This is a loving home where Thierry (French), Monica (Congo) and their beautiful boy Noam live in a house with a guest room and guest bathroom just for me! :) Yeah, children are cute...but this one is really adorable. I'll see if a can get a picture for you for the next blog.
This "Benin blog" will be about a field trip with the Red Cross. I get some unique experiences sometimes and this was one of them. The Red Cross does a million different things on this planet. But some things are more common than others. Like first aid training, disaster preparedness and disaster relief...and water and sanitation (WATSAN). Thierry who is French, is working in Benin for the Dutch Red Cross...apart from having a Danish visitor and being in a relationship with a beautiful Congolese woman and having a multinational son. It's all pretty international. Anyway, we headed out to have a look at where a water and sanitation (WATSAN) project will soon be implemented.
The welcoming water on the ground. Cruel if your thirsty! :)
But given that I have the title of Goodwill Ambassador it wasn't straight forward. Some places a title like that offers a lot more respect than other places. So first we met with the president of the local Red Cross branch of Dangbo. We turned off the main road, headed down a few narrow roads with dense forest on both sides and ended up in front of a house. We stepped out of the Toyota land cruiser and were greeted by the President who poured water on the ground in front of us. "This is the traditional way of greeting strangers" he said. Then there was some dancing and singing and afterwards we entered his courtyard. I was asked to sit in a comfortable sofa which had been brought outside. Then we all drank from a bowl of water which was shared among all of us. Not drinking would be a sign of disrespect. After the last person had been passed the bowl a performance by some of the village youth was performed. A boy was spellbound by a sorcerer who gained complete control over him and his movement. A girl shows up to see what is going on and is also put under the spell and shares the same faith. The sorcerer makes them jump left and right to demonstrate the control. Now a pastor (a boy of around 8 years) approaches and there is some debate between the Christian pastor and the voodoo sorcerer. The sorcerer looses and Christianity wins. The two spellbound children are released and saved by Christianity. Hurray for the freedom of the right religion!
The sorcever with her 2 spellbounded villagers. Hopping left and right under her command.
Voodoo continues to thrive in Benin and I would see it again and again throughout the day. It's the traditional religion of Benin and it is still a strong belief among many. Black magic and white Magic. Mostly black magic though as far as I have heard. I makes you wonder about human nature.
Oh yeah, Thierry and I were given 4 birds in a cage for dinner :)
Now the President leaned over and asked me in English what I thought about Christian missionaries coming and converting the country? To that I replied that a 1,000 years ago my country, Denmark, had a belief of many Gods and that Christian missionaries came and did the same to us. And then we spoke no more of that.
We got back into the Toyota and headed to a place where we would enter "a deep black hole". We stopped at another village, Sotö, which has historical significance. During the Abumay Kingdom many villages would become pray for the hunt for slaves. This was common practice in many African countries and once the stronger tribes, empires or kingdoms would have captured slaves they would be sold to the European ships. Of course slavery started long before the Europeans arrived . You may remember a previous blog where I mentioned the powerful Mansa Musa from the Mali empire who traveled to Mekka along with thousands of his slaves. And of course you can date slavery back to many other places before that...Egypt is a good example.
The water which the villagers retreat to.
Okay, back to the story. The powerful Abumay Kingdom would send warriors to hunt the villagers of Sotö so the people of Sotö needed to work something out! We followed a steep, slippery and narrow path down, down and down until we arrived to another hidden village...which is also Sotö. The entrance was guarded by a voodoo statue.
A voodoo protection/warning before the village.
We entered the village, greeted a lot of people and continued through to the other side. We were now surrounded by the rainforest but there was a small naturally formed pond with clear water. This was the ideal hideout for the villagers during the terrible raids. And apparently the warriors of the Abumay Kingdom would stop long before they reached the water...because they could smell the water and they were afraid of water. So the warriors would turn around and make their way back up the hillsides. But the Sotö's had placed traps which would kill many of the warriors. Yup, that's the story and it's all pretty impressive when you stand surrounded by it all. Because the area probably didn't change much in terms of time although most of the villagers most definitely have a mobile phone now.
We walked back to the Toyota and drove for a while until we reached Hetin-Sota. It's a small village near a lake/river. The "Christmas tree" (drilling terminology) which controls the pressure on a well, was visible just outside the village, on top of a geothermal well which was drilled in 1956. The well is probably very deep and definitely contains a lot of pressure. A welding had broke enabling hot water from deep below the surface to shoot out of the side of the "Christmas tree". This was a great "find" for the locals that showered, washed their clothes, and washed their dishes in the hot water. But the water under the high pressure of the well will continue to saw through the metal until the "Christmas tree" breaks apart. Imagine if someone is standing next to that big piece of metal when it breaks and is shot off due to the immense pressure?! Will they lose a leg? Will they lose more? What would you do in a situation like that? Could and would you try to explain that to these rural villagers that likely will never understand?
The geothermal well from 1956.
From Hetin-Sota we had to leave the Toyota and take a boat to reach Gla Hounsa. As far as I could tell it is an island. People have been living in Hetin-Sota for around 150 years so really not that long. There are no toilets or latrines. Animals run loose everywhere and leave their faeces everywhere. The entire area floods for up to 7 months every year and covers most of the landmass.
Our boat hit the shore and we jumped off and onto land. Villagers greeted us with kind smiles and handshakes. The children were scared, exited and happy all at the same time. A man came to take my hand and didn't let go again. So we walked hand in hand for a while until someone came and stopped it :) Apparently the man was mentally unstable. We walked through the humble and very basic surroundings where fishing takes up a big part of life. Because there are no toilets they resolve to open defecation. We spotted some amazing calabash which were hanging in a garden and went over to them. A woman in the garden was smiling and happily came to explain about them. She also handed Thierry some seeds.
I need to say that I almost never pick up on the language in these situations. I need to interpret from what I see and what I already know. I really do not speak enough French to understand any of the conversations and I know nothing of the local languages like Fon or Yoruba. I commonly have conversations summarized for me afterwards or leave not knowing. But I do know how to interpret a smile and some warm eyes. And I do know how to accept a gesture of kindness or a respectful handshake. And of those things you will never run short among the poor of the world.
We left the way we came. The children of the village kept waiving until their arms almost fell off. So did my handholding friend :)
Back in Dangbo the President had arranged for a meal for us. I cannot say for sure what I had but I didn't care much for it. I ate as much as possible and would probably have had much more if I had no choice. But I do. It was some sort of paste from corn which reminded me of something I once had in Honduras. Then there was a fish which had been fed its own tail so that it formed a circle. I like fish. I do not like bones. This fish's meat was strangely hard. I also had some green gooey stuff which looked a lot like snot and didn't taste like much. All of it was accompanied with a hot sauce which made the corn paste quite good.
After the meal we all had some wine which was served in metal bowls. And then everyone gave a thank you speech directed towards me and to some degree Thierry. I also gave a small thank you speech which Thierry translated in real time. Soon after we returned to the Toyota and headed back to Cotonou. Where else am I going to experience stuff like this? Where else will you read about it?
I really don't know how my life ended up like this? I could be stuck in an office somewhere or I could be raising children. I guess I made a differ turn somewhere. Someday all of this will simply be stories told by an increasing bald man who exaggerates and pauses to remember. But I'm currently still living it.
The family dog sleeping on its back :)
Okay, for now I'm with Thierry and that's a good thing! I feel comfortable in the house because Monica and Thierry are great hosts. I guess I owe Ingrid in Togo a bottle of red wine for making the connection. I often enter homes where the owners say something like: "Feel at home. I hate when my guests ask for everything. If you want something from the refrigerator then just take it". I'm in that kind of home right now :)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - challenged, but not above ability ;)
Once Upon A Saga