Jola Naibi

Writer and amateur photog. I seek to inspire and inform with the words I write and share and the photos I take. I have written a book of short stories: Terra Cotta Beauty, and I am working on a lot more. Reading and writing fuel my energy. In reading, I explore this vast and diverse world, in writing, I employ my over-active imagination and address the 'what-if' questions that life often throws at us.


Twenty Nights under the West African Sky

By on June 11, 2008

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

  1. Reply


    June 13, 2008

    I was just going to ask for the photos but see that you went several steps better.
    – loved the post, your usual lyrical whimsical style
    – loved the pics
    – loved the music

    welcome back, missed you!

  2. Reply


    June 14, 2008

    I am cracking up reading the last few sentences about the differences between zemi riders and okada drivers, lol!

    Lovely music and footage. Welcome back!

  3. Reply


    June 18, 2008

    Lovely pictures, the smiling kids are such a joy. I wonder what makes us Nigerians so rude re: the rude okada guy

  4. Reply

    omohemi Benson

    June 20, 2008

    so glad you are back home safely
    and glad you enjoyed your experience here.

  5. Reply

    Noni Moss

    June 24, 2008

    Lovely post – made me smile in amusement at the comparisons. Great photos as well – you have a very good eye!

  6. Reply


    September 19, 2008

    I saw 2 female okada riders at Festac recently and I was liek waoh. It’s kinda more of perosonal than commercial

    Solomonsydelle mentioned ur mom one yr remebrance. May her soul continue to rest in peace. My mom and dad are both late and I know how hard it might be to get over the loss. God will see you thru

  7. Reply


    November 20, 2008

    Very very lovely post. Me like it.

  8. Reply

    Suby and Sinem

    February 25, 2009

    Interesting read, just look at them as death traps, know they are affordable, but wish they were slightly safer to those who ride them 🙂