Picture of cotonou Cotonou is not the capital city of Benin, but you'd never know that from visiting. The international airport, nearly all the foreign embassies, the only banks in the entire country and anything that can be considered a transportation hub is located there. The actual capital, Porto Novo, is a sleepy town about 30 km off to the east. Cotonou means 'The mouth of the river of death', which happens to be what this picture is. The Oueme river leads from a huge lagoon just north of the city through the center of town and into the Atlantic Ocean. The name itself was given because the Dahomeyan kings exported slaves to the coast via the river. It wouldn't be hard to come up with a modern interpretation though, the river is very heavily polluted through the city of Cotonou. The most dangerous part of walking across the river along one of the bridges is the possibility of being hit by trash that drivers throw out of their windows as they cross the bridges.

Picture of coast It doesn't really mean anything to say that Cotonou is the most 'African' of the bigger cities we visited, but it's hard to come up with a proper word to describe it. Cotonou is much more like a large African village than it is like a big city undergoing a slow modernization. The economy is nearly entirely market-based. Stores exist but are generally rare. Restaurants exist as well, but street food is really the much more common and accessible form of eating out. Miniature neighborhoods of huts can be found next to multi-story bank buildings even right in the middle of town. And there is truly no such thing as unused space in Cotonou. There are no green areas or parks. Every vacant spot has been taken over by street vendors, hut villages or impromptu landfill.

Picture of skyline The city does have a modern side. It's very unlikely that any traveler to Benin will avoid Cotonou. We spent several days here early on in our trip collecting visas from other African embassies and trying (vainly) to adjust to life in Cotonou. We later returned several times (because all roads lead through Cotonou) so collectively we spent 4 or 5 days in the city. It does have a certain charm. There is no tourist industry in Cotonou to speak of. There are a couple of beach resorts near the airport, but walking around the city you won't see many other visitors.

Picture of street_scene If you're the type of traveler who likes to remain inconspicuous, you'll find Benin to be quite a challenge. It's not just skin color, dark-skinned Europeans and Americans will find themselves called 'yovo' (slang for a light skinned person) as well. Even if you're dressed in the local style and speak fluent Fon, you're not very likely to blend in. Speaking of Fon (or Fongbe) it is the local language of choice but not the easiest thing to learn, especially as it has no written form. French is the 'official' language of Benin, and most people have a knowledge of some French phrases but are not necessarily fluent.

Picture of brochettes If Benin had an official food form, it would be brochettes. Anything that can be served on a stick, generally is. Here we are at lunch one day, and we took this picture not so much because of the brochettes (which are good but not really exciting) but because of the side dishes. Brochettes generally come with a starch of choice. In the foreground here is aloko which is chopped fried plantains. On the far plate, the substance that looks like mashed potatoes is akassa. Akassa is sort of a steamed form of rough corn meal. It can be found from street vendors everywhere wrapped in banana leaves and served with a choice of sauces. Make sure you get a sauce because it doesn't taste like all that much by itself. Pizza is also relatively common in Beninoise restaurants (but not as street food). In both Benin and Togo it is often served with an interesting olive oil that contains cayenne peppers, some form of citrus rind and maybe an herb or two. Omelets are also common as street food, 'omelet-men' show up on the streets after dark and will cook a more or less custom omelet (don't expect many ingredients to choose from) for practically nothing. Since the men are responsible for omelets, that leaves the women to sell sandwiches. They carry a basket of baguettes on their heads and the most common sandwich filling is mayonnaise. Yes, just mayonnaise. And it's applied to the bread roughly the same way you'd apply whipped cream to pie. We didn't try one of these as we couldn't quite get past the fact that they were open jars of mayonnaise carried around in the sweltering heat all day.

Picture of fishing_village

Picture of dantokpa Cotonou does have some attractions. The cathedral in the center of town is an interesting red and white striped creation. The big draw in town though is Dantokpa Market which is of truly staggering size. This view of it from the river doesn't even begin to describe it, but once inside, the alleyways are far too narrow for a photograph to show much of it. (Plus you'd end up paying a lot of 'small gifts' to take a photo like that). The market is a great place to wander aimlessly, although if you appear too aimless you'll be set upon by the merchants so the key is to wander aimlessly while looking like you're en route to a specific destination. If one was actually trying to find a specific item in Dantokpa… well, good luck. Away from the river there is a huge cluster of low huts, stalls, sheds, and carts. Fabric is common, so are fruits, vegetables, livestock, chickens, kitchenware, assorted rusting bits of metal, things wrapped in banana leaves, random viscous liquids in plastic bags and recycled coca cola bottles filled with who knows what. Okay so we don't even know what half the stuff we saw was.

Picture of river_market This is an area of Dantokpa along the river. It is slightly separate from the rest of the market and is aimed towards trading with the fishermen who live in the lake villages. They bring their catch to the shore here via pirogue and trade for well, everything else that isn't fish. Regarding photography in west Africa - it isn't easy. Any potential photograph has to be reviewed for legal reasons (most countries don't allow photos of government buildings, bridges or markets), religious reasons (including mosques, voodoo shrines and assorted fetishes), and 'gift' reasons. Gifts (cadeau in French, also called a dash in English) are just part of life while visiting Benin. Generally, gift means a small amount of money and most people expect one if they're going to be central in a photograph. Many of the potential 'gift' opportunities can be avoided but not when it comes to photography. Most of our pictures on all of the west African pages come from transportation like boats, taxis and buses where it is was not so obvious we were taking photographs.

Picture of sunset We can't end the Cotonou page without mentioning zemidjans. Zemis are basically motorbikes or scooters. It is the way to get around Cotonou for short distances. Well over half the traffic in town is zemidjans and licensed drivers are easy to find (they wear yellow shirts) and it's cheap. It's also not terribly safe but that's something you just have to accept. There are intracity taxis around, although they're harder to find. They cost a bit more than zemidjans but they are necessary to cover larger distances across Cotonou. Leaving Cotonou by taxi to other cities in Benin is a bit of an adventure. Cotonou has a wide variety of gares (taxi stations) where shared taxis load to leave in various directions. Then there are specific unofficial routes where people are picked up along the way. There are, naturally, no signs for any of this. The ideal way to leave any Beninoise town is to hail a zemi, tell him where you want to go by taxi and expect to be dropped at either a taxi station, or possibly just along a road somewhere where a taxi meeting your criteria will happen to be loading. We did become fairly adept at this. The real bit of skill is in the bargaining once you find a taxi headed where you want to go. There is also train service north from Cotonou but we'll leave that story for the Abomey page.


Back to Trips