Nighttime Outside Abomey, the Old Capital of Bénin. Photo: Bronwyn Mills

From Africa Journal, en route to and arrival in La République du Bénin

Prelude:  January 9—

 Leaving Europe from Paris, on a tired looking Air France jet—what, Boeing 737?  I don’t know planes—you fly over Majorca and the Mediterranean, and then it begins.  You look down—you who used to be scared shitless of flying,  let alone looking out a plane window at anything. You can’t help it because, yes, you have just entered the airspace of another continent and if this can be said, not any old continent but our mother one.  

Squares.  Rectangles.  Semi-arable land, grey-greenish, giving way to a lake:  “What lake is that? ” you ask the oily-haired British fellow sitting next to you.  He looks up from his Better Homes & Gardens,  “Lake Chad.”

The grey and dusty geometry gives way to sculptured sand and, through far off clouds, the even more distant peaks of the Atlas Mountains.

A strong smell of filthy socks permeates the front end of the cabin where you are sitting, so to get a breath of neutral air you walk back towards the loo; there a tiny French woman waiting to relieve herself proceeds to denounce the fetid air in loud, rapid fire française. Several times the stewards run up the aisles spraying some sort of cathouse perfumed somethingorother in the air that is supposed to soak up the noxious smell.  It doesn’t.

You doze off on bad airline food (this is Air France?) and good wine.  When you wake and look out the window again, the vista is dust, dust, dust, presumably sand, through which peers a lowering, dark sun.  Is this the Sahara  stirring up a sandstorm? The sands which go so far that they leave bits at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea? What you have just witnessed is not an isolated storm, but the great Harmattan looming…

Then the beginnings of  the River Niger and the dissipation of dust; Gao, according to the screen map, is to the west and, by now, slightly north as the land darkens into grey again and a pewter Niger slithers southward.  If the river looks like this from this height, it must be a monstrous force on the ground and, like one of Africa’s pythons, pure intention.

The plane crosses the Niger as the sun sets, and a dark cloud churns in from the west, multiplying the vivid orange streaks of  light.  Above the sky is deepening blue, with just the barest sliver of a new moon. 

We begin our descent.

Cotonou, Bénin

Somewhere after the first week to January 22:

The flurry of trying to get settled, surrounded by la langue française, which, since you haven’t uttered a word of it since high school is a bit confounding… You land at Le Chant d’Oiseau, described as a “hostel,”but really a conference center run by nuns which houses a few backpackers, oui, but also what seem to be an older, more self–directed clientele who are passing through to attend to various NGO functions, UNESCO and agricultural project meetings, and meetings regarding the charitable concerns of the Church.  Another Fulbrighter has recommended it—it is clean, basic, and offers decent meals.  However, do not miss the schedule and forget a cuppa in between, Soeur Somebodyorother runs the place like a drill sargeant from the U.S. Marines…

It has a computer center, with a large contingent of uniformed little schoolboys sneaking peeks at online porn and playing video games.  With a private school next door, the agreement really was to allow them in only to do their homework.

E. D. has mentioned the “attar of petrol” in his BORN WITNESS, circulated among some of us; and it so stimulated a response that I did not pay attention to the time on the computer at Le Chant d’ Oiseau Hostel. It kicked me off mid-eloquence, dammit. The thought and the odeur linger on, however. I have observed the poor  person’s taxis here, “motos” small motorcycles, more  popularly called “djemis” or “djems,” (pronounced “zem” ) driven by men, called Djemijohns, wearing yellow shirts. In the morning they are like a swarm of yellow jackets buzzing down the street—hundreds of them—no  helmets, and NO EMISSIONS CONTROL.  The only blue in the air is blue smoke—I have not see one sliver of azure sky since I arrived—just low-lying bleu horrendous, interrupted only by the greasy black smoke of a passing truck or car.  If you thought every car manufacturer and every reasonable government enforced the ban on motors not retooled to reduce emissions, you are wrong.  They just send those belching, toxicity-farting old motors down to the third world, naked, unadorned.  The worst day was when I was in the textile market;  the fumes and congestion were almost overwhelming.  To see babies splayed against their mothers’ backs like frogs, limp, inhaling the stuff:  as I have wondered in a few emails, why don’t they all  drop off  like, as Eduardo Galeano once reported, the birds that fell from the sky on his friend in Mexico City?

At night, I crawl into bed under my permethrin-saturated, no doubt carcinogenic, mosquito net.  It is quite translucent and it feels like  a lovely cocoon.