Getting to Songhai – wheeled transport in Benin

Songhai is about 40 km away from our hotel, just outside the nearby town ( and capital of Benin) of Porto Novo. Unfortunately, in Benin, transportation can be a challenge. I could have hired a taxi for the day from the hotel, but that would have been boring. I decided to try public transport, and it definitely was a challenge. I started by negotiating a 300 CFA ($.60) fare on a Zem (a motorcycle taxi) to the Gare de Dantokpa, which was apparently where one obtained a taxi to Porto Novo. That was only mildly hair-raising, but when I arrived, I found nothing resembling a taxi stand, just a bunch of rutted dirt roads filled with stalls, motorbikes, and cars. After wandering around for a while, I realized that some of the people standing near cars were shouting Lomé, and that these were the shared ‘bush taxis’ presumably going to Lomé, the capital of Togo. This was the opposite direction, but at least I had a slightly better idea of what was going on.

Eventually, I found some people going to Porto Novo, but their cars were empty, and they wanted 10000 CFA ($20) to go to Porto Novo. The price should be around 500-700 CFA per person, with 6 passengers jammed into the car (so max 4200 for the entire car) but I was unable to talk them down, and with my limited French, I was also unable to get them to wait.

After walking some more, I found another car, this one willing to go to Porto Novo, and asking 3000 CFA, with what appeared to be 2 other passengers. Still a bit high, but if he was asking me to buy 4 seats, not outrageous I thought. I tried to negotiate a bit, got nowhere, and nodded in resignation. Suddenly there was a large discussion between the driver and the other two passengers, ending with the male passenger leaving, and the female passenger giving the driver money as he filled the entire car with bundles which were nearby. This wasn’t what I thought I was getting into!

By this point it was almost noon, and I knew there was a tour at Songhai scheduled for 1 pm, so I decided to go with the flow. Then, when I got in the car, things got even more confusing. The woman had given the driver a stack of strange bills, then handed him an additional 6000 CFA. What was going on? The driver then showed me the bills, and asked if I knew Nigerian money? I said no, and so we carried on.

As we got out to the road, I started thinking. The Nigerian Niara is worth more than the CFA, and the bundle the driver had was several thousand Niara. Why did she give him so much money? I managed to determine that he was taking these packages to the Nigerian border, which is just past Porto Novo, and handing them over to another driver to take them to Lagos. Maybe the Niara were to pay for that? But why 6000 CFA too? Maybe to buy something for her at the border? They had quite a discussion about it though…

Then we came to our first police checkpoint. When coming into Benin, our bus was stopped for close to an hour while the people on the checkpoint looked at the goods under the bus, found something suspicious, then got into a long discussion with the woman who owned it, culminating in a 100000 CFA ($200) fine/duty payment. Our car was waved through the first checkpoint, and I came up with another theory… Maybe I’m the token white guy in the front seat to make this look like a legitimate drive, and allow the driver to get through these checkpoints without being asked questions! Lovely… Well, I was committed by then, unless I wanted to get out and find my own way back, so I crossed my fingers, and we made it through the other checkpoints without issue. Talking about it later, someone suggested a less shady explanation. Perhaps the driver was transporting the Nigerian money for the woman, and she had made arrangements to purchase some other goods, but had not yet paid for them.

The road was newly paved, in good condition, with two lanes in each direction and a separate motorcycle lane on each side. Some of the best road I’ve seen in Africa in fact. We did stop at one point to pay a toll of 250 CFA, but even that seemed pretty reasonable. According to the driver, this was a pretty new road.

As we turned off to the north toward Porto Novo, the driver asked me again whether I wanted him to drive me all the way to Songhai for an extra 1000 CFA. I had originally said no, since I could get a Zem for 100-200, and tried to negotiate, but he wouldn’t budge. Looking at the time, it was getting close to 1 pm, so I agreed. Sometimes throwing money at a problem is the simplest solution.

I had planned to take pictures from the open car window, but I’ve found myself inhibited from taking photos in public places on this trip. Partially it is because I’ve seen people hide their faces when I pull out the camera, but also, when many people here spend their lives on the streets, they don’t really have any private space to retreat to. I’ve also read that some West Africans feel that white tourists are taking pictures to show their friends back home and laugh, which isn’t the impression I want to leave. In any case, I didn’t take any photos while driving.

Finally we arrived at Songhai, I paid the driver, and he drove off to whatever he was doing with all those packages. I did pay him with a 10000 CFA note though, which made him grumpy, even though he knew that I knew he had received 6000 CFA from the other lady. In the end, he was able to make change.

There was lots of activity inside Songhai, but no obvious place to request a tour. After wandering around a bit, I asked someone, who pointed me to a security guard sitting outside the cyber cafe. In my broken French, I asked about a tour and was told 8:30 and 10:00 am only! I protested that the website mentioned tours at 1300, 1530 and 1700, so then he said ‘ok, how about a tour now?’ It turned out there was a visitor from another government there, who was also looking for a tour, and this would even be in English! Great, I thought, and sat to wait while this visitor (an engineer working for a visiting minister) talked with one of the senior staff from Songhai. Suddenly the visitor discovered that he had to leave, and would not be able to take the tour. The Songhai staff quickly vanished before I could ask any questions, and I was back to questioning the security guard. He wasn’t able to find anyone I could talk to in English, even when I mentioned that the Songhai director had been speaking at the eLearning Africa conference that morning, and had encouraged people to visit (all of which was true – Becky told me so, since she was there listening to him), and told me the next tour was at 1530.

Ok, fine, I’ll keep myself occupied until then. I went to check out the shop, which had various flavour concentrates (tamarind, baobab, ginger, etc), yoghurt, soap, spices and probably some other stuff I couldn’t see. Then I went to the cafeteria for lunch. Becky had been told the food was really good, and I was hungry. It was late for lunch, and they were serving smoked fish heads, rice, and some sort of red sauce. Not exactly what I was expecting! I had a plate of rice, sauce and a small piece of smoked fish (not a head! There were other pieces hidden in the cabinet, although it was mostly heads) for 500 CFA and a big bottle of water for 550 CFA. It actually turned out to be quite tasty, but not the gourmet fare I had been led to expect.

Once lunch was done, I went back to the waiting area, sat until shortly after 1530, then went to talk with the security guard again. This time he pointed me to the telecommunications and copy centre. I went to talk with the girls working there, who now told me there was no 1530 tour and the only tour today would be at 1700. Argh! There was no way I could take a tour at 1700, and get back to the hotel before dark, and I really didn’t want to be wandering around Cotonou in the dark. Well, at least I’d gotten to Songhai. I tried playing the director card again, and got nowhere, possibly because of my bad French. Giving up, I went out to talk with the security guard, and he relented and at least let me go further into the complex to visit the guesthouse and the library. Neither was particularly interesting, and the library had a very limited public collection, mostly magazines on farming and sustainable agriculture, and mostly in French.

Walking back toward the front gate, I noticed another person with white skin – the first I had seen since leaving the hotel in the morning. Thinking there was a chance she might speak English, I approached her. It turned out that she spoke both English and French, and had two friends with her, one from Cotonou, and another from Kinshasa, and they were also interested in learning more about Songhai. They got definite confirmation that there would be a tour at 1700, so I asked them how they planned to return to Cotonou. They had a car! I am almost never comfortable asking for favors but I made an exception this time, and asked if I could ride back to Cotonou with them. They kindly agreed, and I finally had a workable plan. We waited for the tour to start in the Songhai restaurant, which was considerably nicer than the cafeteria I had eaten in. We only had drinks, but the meals of other diners looked delicious. Thanks to Isabelle, Felix and Guy for rescuing me!

A few logistical notes for others visiting Songhai (accurate as of May 2012 to the best of my knowledge):

  • the tours don’t necessarily run all the time
  • – tour cost is 500 CFA, and is booked in the telecommunications building on the left side of the main road
  • the guest house is fairly simple and inexpensive
  • there is a new hotel on the grounds which looks nice, and is quite a bit more expensive (40000 to 60000 CFA if I heard correctly)
  • the nice restaurant at Songhai is just behind the shop on the right side of the entry road
  • if you do not speak French, I’d recommend organizing a tour by calling ahead (or booking with a Cotonou tour company to transport you) rather than just showing up
  • telephone numbers for Songhai are on their website

More details on Songhai and the tour I took are in an earlier post.

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