An Angel in Benin

Packed Motorcycle

“What time is it in Africa?

This was a question that I got from a young boy in St. Kitts this summer. As most of us know, Africa is a large continent spanning at least four time zones.

I am determined in my time here to sample as much of the continent as possible. I cannot visit every country, not even most of the ones that I would like to, mainly because travel within Africa (not unlike travel within the Caribbean) is prohibitively expensive. So I have decided to hit the hot spots – North Africa (Egypt), South Africa, East Africa (Tanzania) and Francophone Africa.

I lived this wish to visit a Francophone African country when I travelled by road with friends to Togo and Benin last week. I intend to write more about this incredible trip, however, one experience will stay with us forever and was an eye-opener in terms of how each occupant of a country is a potential ambassador.

Fishing scene in Grand Popo, Benin
Fishing scene in Grand Popo, Benin

We crossed the border from Togo to Benin at about 4 in the afternoon, confident that we had lots of time to get to our hotel in Cotonou. This was a gross miscalculation on our part. We drove through the scenic country-side of Grand Popo and other towns for an hour or more before the surroundings began to change. More and more cars joined us on the road and the number of motorcyclists increased as well. We eventually arrived in Ouidah at about 6 pm and realised that with the continuous increase in the volume of traffic, Cotonou was another hour at the very least.

By the time we got to that city, my nerves were on edge. There were three, sometimes four lanes of cars on the two lane road and motorcycles filled every space in between the cars. When we go to an intersection there would be at least 30 motorcyclists ahead of me waiting for the traffic light to turn to green. Sometimes there would be a motorcycle on either side of me and a car coming down the middle as well and it required every ounce of concentration to keep track of them all.

Motorcycles in Benin
Motorcycles in Benin

It was now dark and we could not be sure where we were or how to get to our hotel, so we decided to stop and ask for help. A young man on a motorbike responded. He assured us cheerfully that we would never find the hotel and offered to lead us there. I declined as I could not imagine how I could keep track of a single motorcyclists in the madness that night. Plus, we did not know this man, he could lead us anywhere!

He gave us the next two steps in the directions and we decided we would ask again at that point. We drove off and got to the first turning point. There he was, gesturing to me to turn. We waved our thanks and drove on. At the second turn,there he appeared again, waving us through. We smiled gratefully and continued on. This time I could see him ahead of us, dropping back and moving forward but all the time keeping an eye on us. At this point I gave in and just followed him. He led us for about 20 minutes directly into the parking lot of our hotel where we breathed a sigh of relief so powerful I think I felt the car shake.

We never got his name, so we call him Angel.

He did not seem to expect any payment for his kindness although we offered something. As we watched him go, we realised that we were already in love with Benin, chaotic traffic and all. We spoke about this experience throughout our entire trip and even in the future when we forget the specifics, we will always have a special fuzzy feeling about Benin.

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