By Maureen Murimi
“Bonjour Madame. Bienvenue à Cotonou. Qu’est ce qui vous amène?”
These are the first words that welcome me to Cotonou, Bénin, a small country located in the francophone part of West Africa.
“Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français,” I respond.
This is the only line I had memorized to get me out of conversations and hopefully get into one with a person who speaks English.
There is much to be said about packing up your life and moving to a strange land. You worry about the sounds and the smells, the people and their culture. You worry about what you will miss once you leave your hometown and fellow country people. There are so many things that run through your mind, but none of them prepared me for Cotonou, the country’s economic capital.
I had read about the tropical city, the voodoo practices, the massive Islamic following and the huge Catholic faith presence. It is from the articles I consumed every day that I knew of the conservative people and the less than developed economy.
It is one thing to read about a country, but until you fully experience it, I am afraid you will have a skeleton image and understanding of a place. Eight months ago, the plane carrying my small family of three landed at the Douane Cotonou Cadjehoun Airport. The airport is tiny and time efficient. There is no hullaballoo. No shops or cafes or hotels within the airport. There is nothing except the unassuming act of passing through and minding your travel business.
One simply lands, goes through immigration, customs, the baggage collection area and then you are out into the unforgiving and harsh heat of West Africa. Mosquitoes in this part of the world are on steroids and they feast on you like they know you are new blood. They move faster than you can put your hands together in a deathly clap.
The vibrant sounds of the city are nothing compared to what we are used to in Nairobi. There is no Uber, Little cab or Bolt to ferry you from one place to another. Instead, you are presented with Kekenons or as we call them back home bodabodas. There is a national taxi service that is very expensive and inefficient time wise.
It is an interesting switch, coming from a place that is so vibrant with the use of technology to suddenly quitting cold turkey. Very few businesses have engaged the use of apps for services like food delivery. As a matter of fact, there are only two businesses, I know, that accept payment via a bank card. Mobile money is slowly picking up. It is strange to look into your wallet and see actual bank notes.
When is the last time your wallet was full of money? For the most part, Kenyans have it easy. We pay for everything via Mobile money. Why have actual currency when everything operates on a digital platform? Every business; Banks, cabs, supermarkets, restaurants, Kenya Power, Kenya Water etcetera operate on mobile money. Now imagine moving to a place where you have to forget all of that.
Imagine having to actually go to a shop physically or having to go pay your electricity or water bills physically. This is my reality in Cotonou, where there is almost a non-existent digital t footprint where avenues for trade and services are concerned. Initially, it used to annoy me because of the inconvenience.
However, I realize now, that without leaving the house and interacting with people, I would not speak the amount of French I know now or interact with the beautiful people of Cotonou. My neighbors say hello, they ask about my son and call me in case something goes wrong. I love the neighborly camaraderie. There is a certain freedom in engaging with fellow humanity.
Away from the fast-paced Nairobi city, I find that I could get used to the village-like lifestyle where there are no airs, just people conversing. We all crave human contact and all we have to do sometimes, is look up from our mobile devices and experience life with the person standing next to us.
Maureen Murimi-Dan Karami is “just another human who loves to write about her experiences.” Born and raised in Kenya, Maureen has a 5-year experience as a journalist. She spent two years in Corporate Communication & Digital Media, before moving to Cotonou, Benin Republic, where in her own words, “I have found that West Africa is an endless calabash of anecdotes and rich experiences.”