Archive for May, 2012

Touring Ghana – Day 1

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

We had a week to kill before our reservations at Green Turtle Lodge, and no idea what to do with it. We don't really like big cities, and there is very little “tourist” infrastructure in Ghana, so getting around and finding places to stay wasn't easy. Inspired by Marie McCarthy's kindle book Travels in Ghana, we decided to hire a car & driver through one of the tour companies. We requested quotes from both Easy Track Ghana and Jolinaiko Eco Tours. In the end, we choose Jolinaiko largely because they had a much better price and seemed a little more flexible. Since we were returning from Benin, we wanted our tour to start in Aflao (the town at the Ghana border with Togo) and end at Green Turtle Lodge, where we already had reservations. The tour would serve the dual purposes of allowing us to see parts of Ghana we otherwise would not see, and it would allow us to get to Green Turtle Lodge without having to go back to Accra! In the end, we booked a 6-day tour, that involved visiting a Kente weaving village, an eco community, hikes to the second highest “mountain” and a couple of waterfalls, a palm wine brewery, a monkey sanctuary, a bead factory, the Akosombo Dam, a Lakeside lodge, and a slave castle. It was a busy 6 days.

Day 1 – Aflao to Mountain Paradise

We took a car taxi from our hotel to the Ghana border. It wasn't far, but with all our gear it certainly made it easier to avoid all the border chaos on the Togo side. The actual checking out of Togo and checking into Ghana went smoothly. Just as we had arrived at a the border, we recieved a call from our driver, Fofo, saying that he had arrived in Aflao. So all we needed to do was walk away from all the touts at the border and find him. Having already arranged transportation made it much easier to get away from all the drivers offering rides to Accra.

We found it interesting that the border staff on both the Benin and Togo sides asked why we didn't speak French. In their experience everyone from Canada speaks French. We found ourselves repeating in our very broken French that only about 30% of Canadians speak French, and that most, are Anglophone. We suspect that because Benin and Togo are French speaking, it is more common for French speaking Canadians to visit here. English speaking Canadians are more likely to visit Ghana.

Initially, we couldn't find the meeting place, but we were pretty obvious – two yovos standing looking at their phones – so it didn't take long for Fofo to find us. Soon, we were introduced to Fofo's beat-up 4×4 Landrover (no air conditioning). We had been informed by Jolinaiko Tours that morning that the air conditioned 4×4 we had been promised was broken, and that instead we would be using Fofo's Landrover for the day – with the other vehicle and driver to meet us that night.

Before leaving Aflao, we stopped at the bank machine to get some Ghana cash (Cedi). This time we used Eco Bank. At first, Becky couldn't get money, but soon discovered that it didn't work when she tried to enter a dollar amount, but worked fine when she just selected one of the values from the screen. The machine only let us take out 400 Cedi at a time (about $200). Since we had to pay the tour company in cash, and almost all our expensense would also be in cash, we each widthdrew 400 Cedi, and realized that along the way we would need to find another bank machine. In hindsight, we should have each done multiple widthdrawls (which we later discovered was possible). The Ghanian Cedi bills are thicker than the Canadian Dollar, so $200 in Cedi (mostly in 10 Cedi notes) makes for a crazy thick wad of cash!

Our first tour stop for the day was at a Kente cloth weaving village. It wasn't really a village so much as a warehouse just off the main road. Becky was struck by how all the weavers were men. We paid a small fee to take pictures, and Scott took the opportunity to talk to some of the weavers. It takes them a long time to make a swath of cloth. Becky was surprised to learn that the cloth was made of a rayon-cotton blend. She expected it to be more of a traditional handmade thread.

It was 1:30 pm and we had not had lunch yet. Becky was starving. Our driver, Fofo, decided to take us to a museum before lunch. Since we paid an entrance fee for the not very impressive museum, Scott used that opportunity to ask the man there more about Kente cloth. After our quick museum visit, we headed out to a hotel restaurant for lunch. One thing to remember about restaurants in West Africa, when you order your food you can wait 60-90 minutes before you see it. Even if what you order is a “simple” dish. This certainly has put our local (Ottawa) Ethopian restaurants into perspective – since we are accustomed to North American restaurant time standards, we always thought the service at the Ethopian restaurant was really slow – now we realize that it was just authentic timing!

After our late lunch, our day was not over yet. We thought we were headed towards our hotel as the day was getting on, but it turned out we were making our way to the village nearest the second highest mountain in Ghana – Mount Gemi. The drive up to the mountain village, Amedzofe, reminded us very much of a trip up to Monte Verde cloud forest in Costa Rica. The roads really needed a 4×4 to traverse. There were a lot of hair-pin turns and rough patches, but as we climbed the views were spectacular. When we arrived in the town the weather was looking rather threatening, with thunder storms approaching. Rather than stop at the visitor centre, we picked up a guide and headed straight to the base of the trail. We would do the hike first, and then return to the visitor centre to register. Our 4×4 made it most of the way to the top, leaving only a short 10-minute hike.

The hike and the discussion with the guide turned out to be the highlight of our day. The guide told us about his community and the neighbouring communities of the same “tribe”, six in total. They shared a language and were lead by the same chief. There were no trotros (mini-van buses) between the villages, and although you could see them all from the mountain top it was not easy to get from one to the other. To visit a neighbouring village you needed to hire a car and it could be over an hour drive.

Our final destination for the day was the Biakpa Mountain Paradise Lodge. Unfortunately, the open air bar that overlooks the valley, which they are famous for, burned down the week before. It was a shame, as we could see the charred remains of the deck and the hillside that had burned. Fortunately, the restaurant was still operational and had a nice atmosphere. Upon arrival, we were asked to place our order for dinner. We would soon learn that this was a normal practice – ordering your meal several hours before you wanted it. After ordering and confirming how long it would take, we recessed to our room for a nice cool shower before supper. For supper Scott ordered ground nut (aka peanut) soup with chicken and fufu (ground cassava). Becky ordered stirfy vegitables with rice. When the food came, we both got ground nut soup with chicken, Becky got glutenous rice, and Scott got fufu. We would soon learn that even though something is on the menu doesn't mean they actually have it! Although this was the only place where they didn't tell us they didn't have it – they just substituted for what they had. Fortunately, the groundnut soup with chicken and rice was delicious.

It was our first stay in a “budget” range hotel in Ghana, so we didn't know what to expect. It was certainly adaquate for our needs, but we were happy to be carrying our own bednet. This was the first night that we felt we actually needed it (we had used it at Marianne's but she also had netting in the windows and it wasn't really necessary there). In highsight, we would rate the hotel poorly. Compared to the other budget places we stayed in Ghana, it was expensive and not particularly clean.

The Kente clothe villiage. This particular place seemed to be the place where several different guides brought their guests – as there was another group of yovos arriving just as we left.

A weaver at work.

Becky climbing into the backseat of the Land Rover.

A typical Ghanian school house. We found it amusing that the buildings were painted using the same colour scheme as the children's uniforms. The tan/brown uniforms were worn by students of the government run schools.

Standing atop Mount Gemi, as the weather moved in.

If you look closely, you can see the cross at the top of Mount Gemi on the left side of the picture, and the rains moving in on us.

The charred remains of the bar at Mountain Paradise alongside a large terminate hill.

Our hotel room with our bednet hung.

 

Compared to Benin, the Internet we received from my phone was “high-speed”. When the phone is acting as an Internet router, it eats the battery, so we had to plug it in while we used it.

 

Crossing Togo and relaxing in Lomé

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Since we were almost at the Togo border, and didn't want the inflexibility of the bus, we decided to take a taxi from Doutou to the Benin/Togo border and then take some form of local transport (shared-taxi) across Togo to Lomé. In many ways that sounds more challenging than it actually is. Marianne arranged the first taxi for us – her usual driver picked us up and brought us right to the border. Since we'd been through the border in the other direction, we didn't find this border crossing at all challenging. We also saw the official price list for Togo Visa for Canadians and discovered that indeed we had not been ripped off. Our visas were 20,000 CFA each (a bit more than $40 CAD).

From there, we had learned from both Logan and Marianne that after clearing customs we needed to just keep walking until we reached the area of shared taxis. We had many people offer us rides to Lomé, so getting there wasn't going to be an issue. The issue was getting there without overpaying too much. So, we walked away from the border and the rush of people offering us rides, after about 300 meters the crowd became less, and then after about 500 m a shared taxi with two people in it asked if we wanted a ride to Lomé. Since it already had people, we could confirm that we were paying the same price as the other person in the back seat (1000 CFA, or $2 each) for the ride from the Benin/Togo border to the central area in Lomé, about 50km and 1.5 hours. At one point the driver stopped to pick up another person for the front seat (so two people pretty much sitting atop one another). We were a little worried about getting a fourth in the back seat, but we may have paid a bit of a premium to have only 3 of us (it was 1000 instead of 700 or 800). It worked out remarkably well.

When we arrived in Lomé we were dropped off at the intersection of the coastal highway and the central market. We were immediately swarmed by Zem drivers wanting to take us to our hotel. One of them promised not to drive to fast, and we negotiated a reasonable rate (300 CFA each). Becky had hoped for a real taxi, but we were not sure if they existed in Lomé – expecting that much like Cotonou, car taxis were few (in the end, we discovered that car taxis were more common in Lomé). The Zem drivers did indeed drive slowly, and since we had packed light, it wasn't a big deal to hop on the back of a motorcycle with all our bags.

The coastal highway through Togo was better than we remembered. The first few km were a morass of dirt and mud due to construction, but the rest of the road until Lomé was paved and in pretty good condition. At the Lomé port, we hit some more road construction, and a messy detour, but it only added 45 minutes or so to the drive.

In Lomé, we stayed at the Hotel Belle-Vue. We quickly discovered that the promised wireless internet was lightening fast compared to our internet connections in Benin. We took advantage of that, and the fact that the hotel had one of the best French restaurants in Lomé to enjoy a couple of days of catching up on writing blog posts, and organizing our remaining week and a half in Ghana.

Our sense of accomplishment the first day did lead to a pretty major “mistake”. After dinner, Becky was so focussed on not forgetting her phone on the table that she forgot her purse! At the time, her purse contained both our passports and Scott's iPad. Fortunately, one of the waitresses at the restaurant brought it to the front desk of the hotel. Once we discovered it was missing, Scott retrieved it and we found nothing missing. Amazing. Note that although the hotel had a nice French restaurant the place was pretty basic. From a North American perspective, it would be comparable to a mid to low end motor hotel (thin towels, doors that closed but didn't quite seal). Great by African standards (our room had AC after all) but not by North American standards. This makes it all the more amazing that the purse was returned in the condition it was left!

We did venture out of the hotel compound for a brief walk to get a sense of how far the Ghana border was (not far, under 1km). The walk was long enough for Becky to buy a beaded necklace. Scott was not comfortable walking around having read the guidebook warnings about the beach, but the people we met were really friendly. Probably the guidebooks have us a little too paranoid, although walking at night is likely still a bad idea. One young child even sang us the Yovo song as we walked along her street.

Before leaving Cotonou, we had successfully booked our last four nights at the Green Turtle Lodge on the coast in the western most province of Ghana. Whilst in Lomé, we managed to setup a six day tour with Jolinaiko Eco Tours. We rented a car and driver (actually a 4×4 and driver) to pick us up in Aflao (the town on the Ghana side of the Ghana/Togo border) and drop us off at Green Turtle six days later. The tour company also booked our hotels and helped suggest an itinerary based upon our interests. It would mean we could go from Aflao to Green Turtle without having to go through Accra.

Gassing up the taxi in rural Benin. We saw many “gas station” that consisted of bottles of fuel put out on table tops on the side of the road.
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Scott walking just after crossing the border from Benin into Togo. We walked along this road until the shared taxi found us.
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The hotel restaurant in Lomé at night (as we were about to have dinner).
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The beach a block from our hotel in Lomé, Togo. You can't see the surf in the picture, but it was huge. There was at least a 20 foot drop-off from the sandy beach to the area where the huge waves were roaring in. There are few if any safe places for swimming on the coast of Togo.
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A flat tire and a visit to the local health clinic

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Our day began with the discovery of a flat tire on the truck we had borrowed, so we added fixing the tire to a list of chores for the day (along with washing the fabric we bought yesterday, so that it can be dried and hopefully sewn someplace else along our journey). It is our last full day in Benin, as our visas expire tomorrow. We are just starting to feel comfortable here, and are sad to be leaving so soon.

Whilst doing our morning chores, we also discovered that Marianne’s house helper, Irene, is sick. Since there is no health insurance here, employers often take on the responsibility of caring for their employees. Ethically, Marianne takes on the responsibility of ensuring those she employees have access to healthcare when necessary. So, we added a trip to the local health clinic to our afternoon plans.

The local private clinic is run by a nurse named Didier, who seemed more like what we call a nurse practitioner as he was able to write prescriptions and order lab tests. When we arrived in the waiting room, we were quickly shown to his office. We expect that Irene would not have received the same level of service had she arrived on her own. Part of that was probably three Yovos (white people) showing up at the clinic, but it also helped that Marianne was learning the language and already had a strong relationship with the nurse and his family – much of West African society seems to run on relationships.

Didier wasn’t in when we arrived, but he was called and arrived within a few minutes. He asked Irene many questions and was able to do a preliminary diagnosis based on her symptoms. He suspected typhoid and malaria. He ordered tests that would be run the next morning at the state clinic, as they only do tests in the morning with results available the same day. He also ordered a treatment of medication for the typoid and malaria since both are seriousness enough illnesses to warrant immediate treatment. The cost of the visit to the clinic was 500 CFA (about $1).

After the clinic visit, Irene went home to rest while we went to the pharmacy to pick up her medication. The cost of the medication was 4500 CFA (about $9) plus the cost of the malaria medication, which the pharmacy didn’t have but Marianne happened to have picked up a box when she was in Cotonou. This would be a huge cost to a local and therefore many seek out the cheaper traditional medicines.

After the stop at the pharmacy, we walked through the back roads of the village back to Marianne’s place. This allowed Marianne to greet people in their local language while we got to observe another aspect of village life. We walked through one compound and were granted permission to take pictures. The father of the house was very proud to show us his pigs. The children giggled and laughed when we showed them their pictures on our digital camera. One blind grandfather requested that we take his picture too. It was an amazing experience that felt quite surreal – a bit like being inside a National Geographic magazine! Since this was a minor trail, we may very well have been the first Yovos these children had ever seen visiting their home. We will print a bunch of the photos when we get home, and send them to Marianne so she can share them with the people we photographed.

Becky supervising/helping as Scott changed the flat tire.
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The waiting room at the clinic.

Marianne sitting next to the exam table in the doctor’s office. I think the exam table is just for show. Scott tried to sit on it, but it wasn’t very stable.

At first the little boy was so afraid of us, that he ran and hit in the house. On the right is the blind grandfather who requested that we take a picture of him.

Another family within the compound. The mother did not want her picture taken, but the kids were happy to pose for a photo.

The kids that followed us as we walked through the compound.

Waving goodbye as we reached the end of the compound.

Exploring Doutou with Marianne

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

After our short walk around Ouidah, we hopped back in the taxi and continued to Doutou (DUE – TOO), the village where Marianne lives. Marianne is a Christian missionary working to translate the Bible into the Saxwe (SAHW – WAY) language, living in a Saxwe community and learning the community language and culture. Her goal, and that of the team of missionary linguists she works with, is to learn the local language well enough to work with local people and effectively translate the Bible. She is not associated with any one religious group within the community, she works with all of the local Christian faith groups, as well as other people interested in the Saxwe language and culture. Although we may not adhere to her Christian faith, we see the work being done to update and teach an alphabet for the local spoken language, the documentation of the spoken language, and the work done to understand the culture as very valuable, both for cultural preservation and lifting up the language and culture for humankind.

We learned that white people are often called “Yovo” in Benin and Togo, and that a Yovo living in a small village like Doutou is a very rare occurrance. Even finding a place to live can be a challenge, since few homes are available to rent.

Marianne’s house is a small oasis in the village (about 90 km from the economic centre, Cotonou, but about a 3-hour drive). Unlike many in Doutou, her house has both running water and electricity. Most people draw water from wells, and only a small number of shops and businesses have electric power. In contrast, almost everyone has a mobile phone, and there are two mobile towers in the village.

Her running water is achieved using a 35m well, a water tower with a 2000L cistern, a pump, and a generator. The generator is used to pump water from the well into the cistern on the water tower. She pumps the water about every 3 or 4 days. From the cistern, gravity feeds the water to toilets, sinks and showers.

Her electricity is somewhat unreliable and inconsistent. When she plugs her computer in, her lights flicker. The power coming from the line (supplied by the Benin grid), is rather weak and inconsistent, hovering below 190V for a nominal 220V service and dropping much lower at times. In part this is because it has to travel about 1 km from the road on very narrow gauge wire (at at least one point in the line, telephone cable was used to instead of electrical wire). Marianne has purchased some solar panels and is planning to install them shortly in order to create some backup power for her computer and for lights when the grid power is not sufficient. She is also hoping to run better quality power lines from some new power poles (an important person lives not too far away, and new power poles were put in recently to service his compound – these should provide higher voltage). When someone pays the utility to have new infrastructure built (such as the person down the road), they control access tio that infrastructure for five years. After five years, it becomes public access. As a result, Marianne had to get special permission to run the extra line to her home. Quite different from how things work in Canada!

Marianne also has a fridge, but because of her electrical issues, she can’t operate it without running the generator full time, which would be both very loud and expensive. When she can get the new line installed, she hopes that the voltage and current from the new line will be sufficient to run the fridge. Today when she wants a cold drink, she needs to walk into town and buy it.

This has made me realize, that even if people do have electricity, it isn’t necessarily adaquate. One key theme in the eLearn Africa conference was the lack of access to reliable electricity. I had taken unrealiable to mean electricity that cut unpredictably. It had not occured to me that it might be that the electricity is not strong enough.

In addition to the limitations of the electrical grid, Benin also has very slow Internet. At the conference, we were able to get wifi that allowed us to upload the occassional picture. Out at Marianne’s we are limited to 2G cellular Internet. When Marianne needed to view a 4-minute youtube video showing how to bleed the air from the fuel lines in her generator, it took 4-hours to download the 4-minute video. So, even if the Internet is available, the speed is often too slow to access much of the content. Benin has just awarded its first 3G/4G mobile spectrum allocations, and a new undersea cable connection to Europe has recently been completed, so hopefully Internet speeds will improve over the coming years.

With our morning chores completed, we walked into town with the hopes of purchasing some fabric. Unfortunately, the lady who sells fabric in the village was not in that day. In addition to purchasing fabric, Marianne had planned for us to visit a restaurant on a Lake near her village, lake Ahèmè (where the Possotome bottle water is made). Originally, we looked into taking a Zem, I would ride with Marianne on her moto and Scott would take a Zem. This would work for getting there but getting back in the dark would be a problem. Fortunately, Marianne’s colleagues, a missionary family in the next village, were willing to lend us their truck for the evening. With the truck, we were able to go to Comé, a nearby town and purchase fabric before heading to the lake for supper.

At the lake, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of rabbit and fish, and several hours of interesting conversation about life, religion and culture. All together, a delightful day!

Marianne’s compound seen from outside. You can see the cistern up on the tower.
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Our bedroom.
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A wonderful breakfast of baked oatmeal and fresh mango.
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Zem ride to pick up the truck and visit the missionary family in the next village.
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Buying fabric so that we can have some African clothes made.
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Animated conversation at the lake restaurant.
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Our dinner table at the stilt restaurant.
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A fisherman as seen from the stilt restaurant.
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A brief visit to Ouidah

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

With the conference over, we accepted an opportunity to visit Marianne in a village 90 km outside of Cotonou (northwest, near the Togo border). Conveniently, she was in Cotonou for other reasons, and we were able to share a taxi back with her to her home. Few people in Benin own cars, and there is no public transportation system, so most travel between cities and villages is via “bush taxi” – usually an older car shared by up to 6 passengers (4 in the back seat, two in front, plus the driver). In our case, Marianne had rented the whole taxi, so there were only three of us – much more comfortable.

Along the way, we passed through Ouidah, and took the opportunity to visit the Walk of Slavery and Gateway of No Return monument, but first we stopped at the Jardin Brésilien restaurant for a wonderful lunch of French / African cuisine.

Benin, formerly Dahomey, was central in the slave trade with the new world, and Ouidah was one of the major locations where slaves were gathered and shipped to the Americas. Close to 1,000,000 people were enslaved, brought to Ouidah from all over Africa, and traded to the West for goods and weapons. There is a brief explanation by a BBC correspondent about the site, which implies that white slave traders went into West Africa to gather slaves, but from what we understand slaves were mostly gathered during conflicts between the various warring kingdoms, or traded between African kingdoms, and the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and British were a convenient new market for these slaves.

The Lonely Planet and the other tourist sites make Ouidah seem like more of a tourist attraction than it seemed to us. To be fair, we did skip the Musée d’histoire de Ouidah which is supposed to be quite good.

We drove rather than walked the 4 km “Route des Esclaves” down to the beach, and looked at two of the monuments, both the “Porte du Non Retour”, typically translated as “Gateway of No Return” and a monument to the French and Spanish missionaries who brought Catholicism to Benin in the 1860s. It is an interesting juxtaposition, with the two monuments on either side of an old seaside fort. We walked from the one monument to the next along the beach, and were able to see the old fort. It appeared that someone recently decided to replace the windows in the out buildings of the fort – perhaps with the thought of turning it into a hotel. The whole idea of staying at an old slave fort as a hotel is rather disturbing to us, but some people would do it.

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Monument to celebrate 150 years of Catholic evangalism in Benin and Togo

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La Porte du Non Retour

We also stopped at a monument commemorating the “Tree of Forgetfulness”, a tree slaves would be forced to circle in a Voodoo ceremony which was intended to cause them to forget the land and customs they were leaving. There are a variety of other Voodoo fetishes and monuments along the Route, but we didn’t take the time to learn about all of them. Ouidah is one of the centres of Voodoo (or vodun in the original Fon and Ewé languages) in Benin and Togo, and Voodoo is a formally recognized religion in Benin.

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Monument to the Tree of Forgetfulness

This is an area of world history that neither of us know much about, and yet it is a very important chapter in the histories of both Africa and the Americas. It is also a history that many people have tried to ignore. These monuments are quite new – 1992 and 1995, and we are happy that people are now paying more attention. Apparently there is also the Door of Return a monument which we didn’t see, constructed to welcome the descendants of these slaves on their return to their ancestral homeland.

Getting to Songhai – wheeled transport in Benin

Friday, May 25th, 2012

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 http://www.songhai.org

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

Songhai – Africa stands up!

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Today I visited Songhai, a 25-year-old community, business and experiment in African entrepreneurship. The Songhai website has a much more thorough explanation in the Songhai charter
, showing how they combine education, experimentation and integration of other ideas to create some very interesting programs and products. They started out in 1985 farming and raising animals, and have added fish farming, packaging of secondary products (cheese, yoghurt, spreads, soaps, bottled drinks) and then the marketing and distribution of those products throughout western Africa and into Europe. They also design and build their own tools, and build their own buildings – very different from what frequently happens in Africa, where a donor country or NGO comes in, builds a building or installs some machinery, then leaves. It’s an organization dedicated to finding new ways to live and work in the African context, using the best ideas from Africa and the rest of the world to develop sustainable practices and socio-economic models. These models and practices promote skills development, entrepreneurship and a culture of success. A very neat place, and I managed to get a tour and take a lot of pictures. Getting there, and getting on the tour was an adventure in itself, but I’ll save that for another post.

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A big poster showing many of the different activities at Songhai

The site I visited was the first one established, but they now have more than 10 sites, in various countries within the region, as they work to share the things they have learned with other groups and communities. From an ecological perspective, they seem to do a very good job with their ‘Systeme Integrale’, taking the waste products from all of their production, and feeding them into another production area.

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The Systeme Integrale

Unfortunately the tour was in French, and my French quite rudimentary. Fortunately I had scanned their website before arriving and was able to use that knowledge and my limited French to stumble along, and still took lots of pictures.

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Our guide Carlos showing a fish smoker designed and built on site. (the smoked fish was yummy too).

They also have locally built bread ovens, wood fired and very large. It was the end of the day, so almost all the workers were finished, but we still got to see the various work areas.

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The bottling area, with bottles of mango, ginger and other flavored drinks, containing only local, organic ingredients.

Songhai raises a number of different types of fowl, including turkeys, chickens, ducks and quail. Most are caged free-range like these ones, although there were some other multilevel metal structures in use for some birds.

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Some very community oriented birds, who appear to lay their eggs as a group.

Songhai also produces a number of clay products, including a clay water filtration system, which can filter 2.5 liters per hour and produce potable water, and apparently lasts until the filter breaks. (I tried to ask whether the filter got clogged with contaminants, and was told no, but I’m not convinced Carlos understood my question)

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Carlos showing the clay filter, the potable water coming from an assembled filter and the press used to make the clay filter.

Biogas production is not on a huge scale, but is enough to help fuel other activities on site, and reduce the need for expensive imported fuel.

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the process for producing biogas from waste material. The “digester” included a bunch of little white worms feeding on the organic waste

Fish farms are another part of the cycle, and the fish food used is also produced on site from Songhai organic material.

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One of the fish lagoons
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Carlos about to feed the fish
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The fish definitely seem to like the food!

There is quite a bit more to Songhai, and I have more photos, but the Internet has slowed to the point that even uploading small photos is painful, so I’ll stop here for now.

Mobile Phone configuration in Benin

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

As we tried to get our mobile phones to work in Benin, we learned a number of things:

  • New SIM cards need to be activated, by presenting an identification document (e.g. passport) at the office of the provider
  • APN settings are tricky
  • SMS message center settings pushed by the carrier may not work on all phones
  • no 3G coverage in Benin, although MTN won a 3G/4G license in March 2012, so that may change soon.
  • According to a local with a smart phone, Moov is much better than MTN for data.  Unfortunately we learned this after buying a 10000 CFA MTN recharge card, so we have stuck with MTN and have not confirmed this ourselves.
  • 2G data roaming from Bell Canada didn’t work (but did work in Ghana and Togo, at least along the coast), voice roaming worked fine (albeit expensive) and SMS roaming is intermittent.

We activated SIM cards on both MTN and Moov. In hopes of saving someone else the aggravation of figuring this out, here’s how we did it.

MTN Telecommunications

MTN requires you to bring a photocopy and present it outside their main office in Cotonou on Boulevard Steinmetz north of Avenue Clozel. Make a photocopy of your passport before you go to the office. There are photocopy shops just down the side road by the MTN building – I made a copy for 25 CFA with some local help. Write your new mobile number on the photocopy and present it at the table under the shelter outside. They asked for occupation and added it to a pile of other papers – no idea when the activation will occur.

To make Internet work, we used the following APN settings on a Samsung Galaxy S i896 (under Settings -> Wireless and Networks -> Mobile -> APN):

  • APN: internet.mtn.bj
  • Proxy IP: 10.10.4.3
  • Proxy port: 8080
  • APN Type: Internet + MMS

Other tips:

  • to check your balance dial *124#
  • to recharge, dial *125*XXXXXXXXXXX# where XXXXXXXXX is the voucher number in the scratch off section of the recharge card
  • Recharge cards are available at many streetside stalls in denominations from 500 cfa to 10000 cfa
  • the only way to recharge a prepaid sim in an iPad is to remove it, put it in a SIM carrier, and use an unlocked phone, with the standard *125*XXXXXXXXXXX# code
  • according to the very frustrated Chinese lady at MTN with us yesterday, data is very slow, especially connecting overseas trying to use YouTube and Skype. We tried to explain that this was Africa, and not too surprising. In hindsight we should have suggested trying to find wifi, it might be better. Also, data coverage is limited outside the major cities, and sometimes even inside.  It has been slow but not unusable in our experience, but Wifi is slow too.  Hopefully the new fiber just laid from Europe to Ghana, Cameroon and South Africa will help when it’s lit up.
  • If sending an SMS the first time doesn’t, work, try again, the network may be overloadeded.
  • Data is 200 CFA per MB, or 2500 CFA for 50 MB by dialing *130*3#. Other  amounts are available.

Moov

The Moov office is a bit further up Boulevard Steinmetz from MTN. The person doing activations was just inside the door, and the queues for everything were much shorter than at MTN. Once I reached the front of the queue, he did our activation immediately, but that may have been because our SIM had already been disabled. He was also able to correctly configure the Galaxy S APN settings with little difficulty.

  • To make Internet work, we used the following APN settings on a Samsung Galaxy S i896 (under Settings -> Wireless and Networks -> Mobile -> APN):
  • APN: moov
  • Proxy IP: none
  • Proxy port: none
  • User name: moov
  • Password: moov
  • APN Type: Internet + MMS

Other tips:

  • to check your balance dial #100#
  • To add funds, dial *101* followed by the 12 digits of your recharge code, # and then dial
  • Recharge cards are available at many street corner booths as well as mobile sellers
  • Text and voice calling between moov phones is much cheaper than moov to mtn. (e.g. 25 cfa per text vs. 50 cfa)
  • On my basic Nokia phone, I had to rename the message sending profile from ‘moov’ to ‘Profile 1′ before it would send SMS successfully.  This is under Menu – Messages – Message Settings – Sending profile – Moov – Rename sending profile.  The message centre number is +22995950999.  See the Nokia discussion board for more details. OneSIMcard has instructions on how to reset the SMSC for many other phones.

In Ghana, people carry multiple mobile phones, because it is cheaper to call and text people on the same network. With multiple networks, people carry phones that either take multiple SIMs or they carry multiple phones. We suspect the same is true here in Benin, but haven’t validated that yet. This may explain why some African countries have higher mobile penetration rates than Canada, including a few with more mobile subscribers than inhabitants

Wandering about in Cotonou

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Not feeling like getting in another taxi or bus, we decided to spend the day wandering around Cotonou. We needed to find a bank machine to get some cash, and we wanted to pick up a different SIM for my phone in hopes of figuring out why text and Internet were not working. Since we were close to the hotels (Ibis and Novotel) and the conference centre, we decided to try walking there.

For some reason, we feel a lot safer wandering around Cotonou than we did in Accra. There seems to be many less people, so that we aren’t so crowded. The fewer people gives the impression that Benin is more developed than Ghana, but we have been told many times that it isn’t the case. In one area for certain Ghana is more developed, and that is Internet access and speed. The cellular network here only gets 2G (no 3G), and even wired Internet is very slow. Recently Ghana has become an access point for fiber that connects Africa to Europe – it will be a while before that increased speed link makes its way to Benin.

After arriving at the Novotel, we quickly discovered that our credit card did not work in their visa ATM. The ATM was hardwired to select “chequing” as the account, so we couldn’t tell it to use credit. Fortunately, the Ibis hotel is on the same road (same parking lot), and their Ecobank ATM allowed us to remove some cash. We’re guessing that would be true for any Ecobank ATM, but haven’t tested that theory.

With money in hand, we decided to try out the local form of transport, the Zemi-John – a motorcycle taxi. Note that there are few car taxis in Cotonou, so almost all public transport is via zem or foot. Occasionally we saw more than one passenger on a zem, but that gets extremely crowded and uncomfortable.

Looking at our guidebook, we decided to go to the Marché Ganhi (a market area in downtown Cotonou). After leaving the gates of the hotel, a couple of guys on motorcycles offered us a ride. They weren’t wearing the yellow jerseys of the official zem drivers, and probably had an arrangement with the hotel security. We negotiated to pay 1/2 of what they were asking (they asked 1000 CFA each, but we could take a taxi for 3000). We paid 500 CFA each, which turned out to be reasonable and only a little high). The route to the market was pretty much a straight line, and the first 2/3 of the trip there was little traffic. With each of us on different bikes, Becky was nervous at first because she couldn’t see Scott and didn’t want to get separated. The driver clearly noted this as he flagged the Scott’s driver to pull up beside us. (Scott suspects that he was really trying to renegotiate the fare in mid-ride, but who knows…) In the end, we arrived safely at our destination. The trip was kind of fun, but very disconcerting to ride the back of a motorcycle without a helmet. Fortunately both drivers kept to a pretty slow speed.

We picked up a SIM and bought a recharge card from a nearby street vendor. Not thinking, we bought the first recharge card we saw, which turned out to be 10,000 CFA ($20). This is a lot of money to put on a phone. We may end up using it in Togo and Ghana just because we likely won’t use it all while in Benin. We might even use it to make a quick call home – we are told that skype doesn’t work well here because the Internet is too slow.

With SIM and recharge card in hand, we stopped in a shop for a cool drink and tried to get Becky’s unlocked Android phone to work. It had worked fine with the Ghana SIM, but proved much more difficult with the Benin one. Neither Internet (GSM-EDGE) nor SMS would work. After fiddling for a while, we asked another person in the shop, since he was clearly using an Android phone. He responded “use Moov, MTN Internet is no good”, which didn’t help much. Fortunately, we were right downtown, and found a mobile shop. They directed us to the nearby MTN head office, where we were quickly sent upstairs, away from the queue, to the premiere service area. Speaking French poorly and being clearly non-native is an asset sometimes. After a brief wait there, the staff tried to get the phone to work. They did get Internet working, but SMS failed to send (we could receive but not send – and apparently, it worked in the MTN person’s phone, but not on Becky’s). We thought we had to somehow activate it, but they didn’t seem to understand that. After about 45-minutes, we gave up. We could call each other (using voice), which is enough while Becky is at the conference, so Scott can come and escort her from the conference site to the hotel at the end of the day. The site and hotel are very close together, but still better to walk together in the dark.

We were slightly adventurous with lunch and choose to eat at a Grill restaurant. It was still pretty up-scale from a local perspective, but not as posh as some of the restaurants we saw. It didn’t have AC, but rather fans and an open walled design, that is the cement wall was a mesh type design with lots of openings to allow air to pass through. This made for a quite pleasant place to sit and eat lunch, and the food was quite good.

After lunch, we decided to walk to the Artisan market. On the way there, we saw a motorcycle crash, and as we got closer, saw the driver had a badly bleeding head wound and possibly other injuries. By the time we got close, several guards from a nearby government building had arrived, and appeared to be phoning for assistance, so we didn’t linger and try to help. Scott decided this was a sign not to ride any more motorcycles today and we walked home from there, having not found the Artisan market. Fortunately it was only a few kilometres to walk back to Haie Vive and the home of our hosts.

We never did find the Artisan market, mainly because Scott misread the map, and we walked the wrong way. Perhaps we will try again another day.

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Bussing to Benin

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Today we took the ABC bus to from Accra to Cotonou. The bus cost was 79 cedi each (about $40). We also paid 20,000 CFA for Togo visas (about $40 each). The bus company guy did a really good job of guiding us through the visa crossings – which was really nice – it made the process feel much less stressful.

Before the bus departed, the pastor for the bus company came onboard and conducted a short prayer services – this was a bit interesting. At first we were afraid it was going to last the entire journey, but alas, it was a quick 10-15 service involving some preaching, a mention the Jesus was driving the bus, and a hymn in which many of the people on the bus joined along. After the prayer service was over, we enjoyed some African music for about an hour or so, then a couple of African style Bollywood movies played – the first involving a lot of women beating up men (I didn’t really get the plot to this one), the second involving an old impotent king and his harem of beautiful young ladies. The production quality for the movies was not particularly good, with uneven audio (clearly filmed using shoulder-mounted cameras) and cheap often very fake looking props.

When we reached Togo, we needed to purchase a Togo visa. This cost us a little more than expected, but also it got a little confusing. Just as the customs guy was telling us the cost, which was more than we expected, so we had not changed enough money, a gust of wind picked up and spread sand through the air, which was soon followed by down-pouring rain. In the flurry of making sure passports didn’t fly away, we lost track of 10,000 CFA (about $20). I suspect that when Scott thought he was passing it to me, he was actually passing it to someone else, who, in the confusion just pocketed it. Oh well, lesson learned, we need to be more careful with money around border crossings. Overall, the visa process was pretty painless. The amount people pay is based on nationality, and it appears that Canadian’s get one of the higher prices :(

In Togo, we saw beautiful sandy beaches (alternating with piles of plastic trash), with roaring surf – you certainly would not want to even try swimming in it. There were people lined up on the beach, such that it looked like they were playing tug-of-war (20-30 people on each side), but actually they were trying very hard to pull in some fishnets. We saw very few people out-and-about while in Togo, perhaps because it was raining.

Overall, the bus wasn’t as nice as I had been lead to believe by what I had read, but it was quite nice by African standards. The seats were a little cramped (my knees often hitting the seat in front of me), but the air conditioning was well set (not too cold, which is a common complaint on the VIP buses). The on-bus toilet was clean and stayed clean throughout the journey! This was partly because of the design – the toilet seat has a spring that help it in the upright position, keeping it clean, but also because the bus attendant informed everyone at the beginning that the toilet was to be used for urination only and that the red button was to be used to flush the toilet (not everyone understood the latter point). Compared to bus travel in the Middle East, it was not nearly as nice as Turkey, but much nicer than Syria and Jordan.

The roads alternated between nice pavement, not-so-nice payment and potholed mud. It was much muddier in Togo than in Ghana. In Ghana progress was slowed by traffic, where in Togo progress was slowed by the large puddles and potholes in the road.

Our first impression of Benin is that it appears more developed than Ghana, but our hosts tell us that Benin is actually much less developed. We have only seen a small part of Cotonou. Whilst visiting last night we were encouraged to try out taking a bush-taxi (shared) for our return to Ghana. We can taxi from here to Lome (the capital of Togo, right on the border of Togo/Ghana) and then hop onto a tro-tro or shared-taxi in Ghana. Logan gave us a few tips on how to do this on a more reasonable budget (when using shared transport everyone pays the same amount, unless you buy an extra seat, but the price is fixed per seat making it much easier to not be overcharged), but it sounds like we don’t even need to be that good at negotiating to do the trip for much less than the cost of the bus, and it gives us more control over where we end up and when we leave (but does mean there are no toilets on the bus). When I requested our Visa, I had thought we had given ourselves a lot of time in Benin, but it turns out we must leave by the 29th (the date on our visa). So, we shall plan to leave Benin on the 28th or 29th and travel to a bit of Eastern Ghana before return to Accra for a day and heading out to the Green Turtle for a few nights. We might spend one night in Lome – we will see how adventurous we are feeling.

We completely missed the time change when we arrived in Benin. It wasn’t until we went to bed that we realized that half our devices were on one timezone and the other half were on another! Benin is 5 hours ahead of Eastern Canada at this time of year, Ghana is 4 hours ahead.

The stadium in Cotonou. Although there was lots of water from the rains on the ground, there was no running water in the ABC bus station toilets :(
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