Twenty Nights under the West African Sky
There is always something new to discover in the Cradle of Civilization and I was reminded of this as I stood on the brink of a historical paradise while ancestral spirits beckoned me to enter.
I am back home after spending twenty illuminating nights under the West African sky. ..crisscrossing from the francophone side to the anglophone side and savoring the delightful similarities that even years of enduring European colonization will not efface.
I met an affable little girl of about five years old who was babysitting her ten month old younger brother and doing an excellent job of balancing him delicately on her back … the way it should be done. Barely able to hide my astonishment while my companions chided me for acting like a foreigner in my homeland I was rudely reminded how long it has been since I have seen such a scene.
The elevations at a place called Collines must have reminded someone of certain parts of the female anatomy thus garnering the name – Les Mamelles which served as a stunning backdrop for a panaroma of scenes of the West African country side including the longest row of garri sellers I have ever seen … it went on for miles and miles.
At the end of my stay in Benin, I had seen everything imaginable on top of a motorbike – a family of five in matching ankara outfits – the father and the mother forming the outer slices of a sandwich of three children including one infant- a live goat lying on its back and its legs tied as it continually squirmed in protest all the while its horns moved precariously close to its captor’s groin, men, women and children of various shapes and sizes often encumbered by a variation of items – the most memorable being a 15 feet iron gate!!!
The fact is that motorbikes are a popular and affordable mode of transport in this corner of West Africa. In Lagos, they are called okadas (a name derived from a defunct airline) in Cotonou – they are called zemis which is short for zemidjans and which in the local language means – ‘Get Me There Fast’ The zemis are the kings of the road…I remember this from my first visit to Cotonou as an adult over a decade ago and I was pleased to see that this has not changed. Although, I lost count of the number of times I almost got run over by them and car drivers treat them like a minor nuisance – a little bit like they are treated across the border in Lagos.
I pointed out to many people that I had never seen a woman riding an okada in Lagos while it is common to see a female zemi driver in every corner of Cotonou…a friend who has had a chance to live in both cities pointed out that the temperament of drivers in Cotonou is a lot ‘different’ from Lagos. One zemi driver who almost ran me over was polite enough to toss a meaningful ‘Je m’excuse’ in my direction in response to my loud scream as he rode away, a similar episode in Lagos earned me a hiss and a ‘You no go comot for road‘