The bureaucracy in Benin is formidable, by all accounts. In order to obtain an extended visa, one needs the following documents, in the following order: 1. Attestation de residence, 2. Certificate de residence, 3. Attestation de visite medicale, 4. Extraits de casier judiciaire, 5. Preuve d’activites professionelles… etc. etc. the list goes up to number 11. Without 1., 2. is impossible to obtain. It is the proof required at the beginning of a long process. And for number 1, you need to apply to the chef de quartier. This person is the one who, in the past, would have been the village chief. Not elected, not appointed, not answerable to anyone, but with real authority. Anything that happens in Quartier Avegodu of Dogbo-Tota, where we live, needs to have his approval. Always handy to be on the right end of his humour. Gerrit had already taken me on a courtesy call a week or so ago, you might remember, introducing me as le nouveau pasteur. Gerrit was otherwise occupied today, and – amazingly, considering what it felt like a week ago – I had enough confidence to go do the necessaries without him.
I took the fine bottle of Delftshaven gin suitably wrapped (as well as Marijke) and we walked over to the compound where he had been shucking corn with his wives last week. Co-co-co-co, I called at the gate, like every self-respecting Beninese does instead of knocking, and we walked in. The performance flopped, however: there was nobody there. We walked around the courtyard, peered into the various windows, but it really and truly was deserted. Fortunately, a young girl appeared through a gate at the other end, and when I asked after the chef, she beckoned us to follow and turned around to lead us to him. He was in a courtyard behind the courtyard through the gate, apparently discussing a building project with another man.
We waited respectfully until he was finished, I greeted him and said I wanted to introduce my wife. Yes, he remembered that I was the new pasteur, of course; and when I said that I had a small gift for him he led us back to the courtyard where we had begun, unlocked one of the buildings, and invited us to sit. We talked a while; yes, we talked! In a variant of French! And he was very pleased to receive what we had brought him, particularly when I explained that it was a product of Holland, where we had come from; and even better, a product of the city where I had been pasteur for six years! (I do hope it wasn’t a lie, that the gin is the real thing, and that Delftshaven really is Delfshaven…)
We thanked him for his hospitality, asked for his permission to depart, and then said: oh, yes, we have a small request… For our carte de sejour, we need a document, and we understand that you are the man who issues such attestations… Of course, he replied, and he led the way to the far end of the room, where from a desk piled high he removed two forms. He checked to make sure these were the right ones, signed them and embossed them with various very official looking stamps. I tried to offer him our passports for verification, but he waved them away. No need for that, he said, just fill the forms in yourself when you get home. And when I asked in my best French: combien le coute pour ces documents? he replied: no cost. It’s my gift to you. You are the new pasteur. You are a man of God.
From there we went to the next office (chef d’arrondissement), and from there to the next (mairie)… There was some to-ing and fro-ing involved, but once we found the place where we needed to be, we were led past the long (!) line-up, straight to the desk of the person issuing the certificats, and with a minimum of fuss and bother we obtained what we were after. For these we did need to pay: CFA 2200, about €3,30. That seemed reasonable to me as well, not quite free, but close. Walking back to the car, however, looking at the duty receipt stamps, I spotted a small anomaly: what had cost us CFA2200, should have, in fact, only cost CFA1000. Free enterprise, Benin style. Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon. And if all else fails, with Delftshaven’s finest.