Earlier this week, it was my birthday. I am now, and it kind of boggles my mind to say this, 31 years old.
Last year, I was hurriedly putting together a birthday picnic in the park down the street from my apartment, giving some chicken pieces a good soak in some yassa marinade, hoping that it wouldn’t rain, that it wouldn’t get dark or cold too early, and hoping that the multigenerational, multilingual group of friends, relatives, friends’ dates and friends’ kids would hold together once alcohol and sugar were added — none of which I could really control.
This year, I was enjoying barbecued chicken and attiéké (bitter West African couscous made from manioc) from a street stall with Anicet, after a few of my friends from work bailed because they had family commitments that they had forgotten about (the average Béninois family is large and close, , so hardly a weekend goes by without a wedding, funeral, baptism, death anniversary or some other necessity).
Last year, I was just beginning to plug my Cuso fundraiser, and all of this was just beginning to seem real.
This year, I’m in the thick of it.
Last year, everything smelled like fall leaves.
This year, everything smelled like chicken grilling, car exhaust…and endings.
As unbelievable as it sounds, I am three months away from coming out the other side of Cuso.
I was worried about waiting for so long to write about the rest of my vacation, worried I’d forget things, but actually, it’s pretty unforgettable. After I left Grand-Popo, I picked my mother up at the airport and spent the next week and a half seeing Benin through her eyes We stayed in the once-glamourous, softly decaying Hotel du Port. Once, it must have been the pride of Cotonou, with its 50s colourized postcard vibe, palm trees, cocktail bar, nightclub and brick pizza oven. Now the pizza oven is bricked up, the nightclub is a construction site with white paint over the windows, and a young employee thoroughly and methodically cleans the pool at the same time every afternoon, even though maybe three people have gone swimming in it that day. The cocktail bar, at times, doesn’t even have orange juice, as my mother found out when she tried to order a cocktail one afternoon. It wasn’t completely abandoned, but I’m not sure if there were more than ten guests at a time the whole time we stayed there. I don’t know what pushed the hotel over the edge into irrelevancy, whether it was the new Novotel stealing the high-end market, the port expanding to brick up the view of the harbour with shipping containers, or just bad management, but it’s firmly lodged there now. It’s a typical upper-middle-range African hotel; it has all the amenities, they just all go on the blink from time to time – but I fell in love with the place for one reason: hot water.
I was surprised at how quickly my mother embraced certain things about Benin. By the second day, my mom, who had never been on a motorcycle in her life that I know of, clicked her helmet on, swung her leg over the side of a motor taxi, grabbed the metal loop on the back of the seat and whizzed with me to Dantokpa Market.
Dantokpa is one of the first things you see as you cross the bridge from Porto-Novo, a sprawling neighbourhood of corrugated tin roofs and cement market buildings that goes on for miles. From what I hear, it’s the largest market in West Africa — and perhaps surprisingly, one of the easiest to stroll through. No one pops up out of nowhere offering to be your “guide” or “vegetable buyer.” No one chases you for half a block after you’ve decided to go look at another stall. They have too many actual clients to worry too much about the ones who got away.
All of the sights I’d gotten used to in Pobè, that were multiplied kaleidoscopically in Dantokpa, were new to her: the piles of red tomatoes and orange and green chiles and baskets of glinting fish, the hens and goats wandering across the road. The market spirits were kind to us, and we found the fetish market, the hidden few blocks of the market where vodoun practitioners go to find potion supplies and sacred jewelry, tiny taxidermified sunbirds for luck, chameleons for memory, animal skulls and leopard skins and lion paws and blessed drums. I could not begin to find that place again, I don’t know anyone else who has found it, and I thought it could only be a good sign. The market spat us out the other side, where market boats bobbed in the lagoon and scavengers picked through massive bricks of rubbish as vendors set up tables on top of it. I never felt threatened – I never do when I go to Dantokpa — and despite our good luck I was still rigid –If you steal from my mother I will cut you. If you try to swindle my mother, I will cut you. If you harass my mother, I will cut you. I was glad to get out– but she wanted to go back. Everywhere we went on the way back, groups of men were leading herds of sheep to market for Tabaski, when Muslims get together to sacrifice sheep in honour of God telling Abraham that he didn’t have to sacrifice Isaac, after all. You sacrifice and grill a sheep or lamb, according to what you can afford, and you share it with those around you. “You don’t have to buy a lamb if you can’t afford it,” said Sirikou, the devout elderly guy who works as a driver with the hotel, who was saving up to buy his own lamb when we hired him for a day out. “But if you don’t share all you can, Allah knows. That’s Islam, it’s not just yelling ‘Allah, Allah, Allah,’ it’s sharing.”
The next day began with the Shared Taxi Experience — bouncing along the road to Ouidah in a nearly rusted-out car with completely ruined suspension, hemmed in by four other passengers along the back seat, with another passenger in the front seat and another, skinnier passenger seated on the gearshift . The children stared at my mother with wide saucer eyes…and we were on our way to Ouidah.
Next instalment coming soon…I can’t believe this was a month ago now!