Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Hotel du Lac. A balmy evening in Cotonou. The terrace, there must be at least an acre of it, is a wonderfully relaxed place to be. The sun has set in golden splendour behind the warehouses on the other side of the channel. A slight breeze carries the sounds of what seems to be a service in progress over in the fishing village snug up against the ocean on this side. We’re here for the night, we’ve had a dip in the pool, and are now into the first course of the traditional Sunday evening Lebanese smorgasbord. Well, Lebanese... there are more than a few other world food traditions represented on the well-stocked side tables. Yes, slightly decadent, I agree.
The clientele does seem to be mostly Lebanese. Women in chaste head coverings chattering with their friends while their Beninese dada’s keep the children (the majority slightly overweight) out of harm’s way. The terrace being as large as it is, the children have taken along their rollerblades and electric ride-in convertible cars and shiny tricycles, and are happily zigzagging  between the tables. A dark-eyed girl, perhaps a year or two old, has for the last few minutes been trying desperately to throw a plastic bag through the railing into the water below, only to have it promptly returned by the breeze. Again. And again. She stamps her feet and picks it up once more. There, she decides, forget the water: into the planter, tucked under the foliage. Gone.

What a world of difference from Tchangba this morning. We were there for a special service, an action de grรขce: all the paroisses of the ERCB in the Mono-Couffo had been invited to send a delegation with a financial contribution towards the cost of benches and ­tam-tams for in the church. Once again, Tchangba is the remotest village of the lot. Accessible over a track barely passable. Thankfully it hadn’t rained for a few days, so four-wheel-drive was sufficient. And no surprise: we got there a bit late. But equally no surprise, there were but a few children present, and a cobbled-together sound system blasting distorted music through loudspeakers which had seen much better days. Probably. Whenever. Not on mains power, by the way. That will arrive in Tchangba probably sometime next century. No, there was a portable generator (with its operator) brought in for the occasion.
Having time to spare, we walked into the village proper. Thatch roofed mud houses. Cooking fires fuelled by stripped palm fronds. Goats, dusty children, chickens, more children – clearly not well-fed, women stirring cast iron cauldrons with steaming and bubbling bouillie, children again, men reclining under a shady tree, everything you ever imagined about an African village in the year 1845. And the centuries before. Nothing, nothing at all in common with the terrace at Hotel du Lac with its Lebanese smorgasbord and plump children in electric ride-in convertible cars.
Except perhaps for the portables. True, not the third-generation smartphones the men at the adjacent table in Cotonou are conversing with while smoking their water-pipe and picking at their falafel. But mobile phones none the less. Stone age village and hotel terrace: the two are united courtesy of MTN, Moov, Glo, Zekede and Bell-Benin. Some of the time, at least. Seeing as there are two obstacles to remaining connected in Tchangba. One: recharging your phone. Two: topping up your credit.
Concerning the first, the special service this morning had an unexpected bonus: the generator. There was a line-up for the 15 slots on the extension cord. But as long as the generator kept going, the phones kept charging.
Concerning the second, the cash economy  arrives at Tchangba only occasionally. In the shape of the odd 100 FCFA piece. That’s about 15 eurocents, for those of you who don’t have a currency converter among your favourites. Good for 100 seconds of communication. Or 1½ text messages. 100 seconds go a long way, if you do as the Beninese do. Call someone’s number and terminate the call before he or she answers. In the hope that the person who missed your call returns it. Assuming he or she has bought more than 100 FCFA credit, of course. I’m not sure if the Lebanese in Benin operate the same system. They’re certainly on the phone a lot. When they should be talking to their wives over supper; or if not, paying a bit of attention to their children. But then, they have dada’s for that, don’t they?

Not that I am at all unhappy about the ubiquitous portable. Far from it. Today is Alice’s birthday. As well as Maarten’s. Here we are in Cotonou. Unpacking our bags, we find a message from Hannah, who is doing an archaeological survey in one of the remotest areas of Jordan: Hello! How are you? What are Maarten’s and Alice’s phone numbers? And what time is it in Canada right now? XXX Hannah. I am amazed once again at technology’s reach. From Stone Age to slightly decadent. From the Middle East by way of West Africa to Amersfoort and Empire Corners. Thank God - yes, literally - for the portable.


  1. And sharing it with the world in just an instant. Truly awesome!

  2. Blessings, and inequality, and even curses all rolled into one ... How to deal with things that are right, unfair and wrong in different instances?
    Love you!