March 2013

(Heartbreakingly, *all* of my photos were color damaged by incorrect processing at the film studio. This is what gives so many of them a very filtered ‘Instagram’ look. https://twitter.com/cba/status/315198965354205185)

In June 2012 two events set the stage for this little trip. The first event was my friend Marji leaving on a two year Peace Corps mission to the West African country of Benin. The second was me starting my first salaried job, or more to the point, my first job with vacation time. From there it was just a matter of when.

I visited to support Marji and to get great photos; but also to ground myself in the reality of this continent that has previously been nothing more than an abstract symbol of poverty. ‘Finish your food there are starving kids in Africa’.

School children in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. Not surprisingly, children were overwhelmingly more eager to have their photo taken than adults.

Trip to the beach in Cotonou. This is where most of the crime against tourists happens. At least what few tourists there are, I travelled up and down the entire country for two weeks and saw fewer than 10 non-Peace-Corps foreigners

I absolutely loved the motorocyle taxis (known as zems), which was fortunate because they happen to be the only taxis. For about 200 CFA (40 cents) a zem would take you anywhere. I gave my driver some extra for putting up with me taking pictures while we were riding.

Everything of value in Benin is behind a wall. If you’re rich enough to have a decent house, it’s behind a cement wall. If you can’t afford barbed wire, you use cement to glue broken glass bottles to the top of the wall.

“@cba Apparently Cotonou is pure luxury. Today we found air conditioning and pizza. No more though, heading to the boonies in the morning”

“@cba 8 hour bus ride from Cotonou to Biguina, Marji's village. Window seat tour of the country. When that gets old I've got Ender's Game.”

Halfway through the bus ride we pulled over at a marché to get lunch.

Back to the bus, and my book.

We got to Marji’s village and went for a photo walk but the 106 degree heat quickly sapped my enthusiasm. Miraculously, the village had a bar with a generator (Biguina has no electricity) and we were able to purchase some mildly cold soda. Sitting around in the shade is a serious pastime in Africa.

Back to exploring the village.

“@cba After more or less roasting alive for the last 2 days this might be the most welcome thunderstorm of my life.”

Marji’s neighbor waiting out the rain. Young girls tend to be really buff from spending all day pumping water and lugging it around in 50 pound jugs.

Marji has her own house in the village. This is what I woke up to.

The oldest woman in the village.

This kid (below) was a member of a different ethnic group than the majority of the village. Their group was more likely to speak Arabic, their clothes were often more colorful and they all lived on the outskirts of the village.

The mark on her face is from a process done at birth called scarification. It signifies your tribe (or maybe ethnicity?). They ranged from small cheek marks to multiple lines running the full length of their faces. Some Peace Corps members choose to get scarification done (usually somewhere other than their face).

The doors and windows mean this is a store. As you can see in the background, houses usually are doorless.

Lizard photography with only a 50mm lens, I’m pretty sneaky.

I set up some targets with Marji’s neighbor kids and we had a sling shot contest. Snicker bars for the winners. This attracted quite a bit of attention.

Leaving Biguina

“@cba So this is fun. Travelling the next 300 miles by "bush taxi", aka 15 adults and 2 babies stuffed into a 60's era station wagon.“

Broken down bush taxi, zero surprise.

Quick marché stop so the driver could by yams.

You wouldn’t believe how much stuff can be carried on a motorcycle, a couple of dogs is nothing.

Hunting for another bush taxi.

We paid a safari guide to take us on a two day trip into the un-creatively named, yet massive W Regional Park. The borders of Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso all meet in the center of the park.

Holy **** is that a lion?? Scramble to take picture.

Lion King elephant graveyard.

“YOVO YOVO YOVO (whitey whitey whitey) is what these kids were enthusiastically chanting as they chased us through their village on our way back from the park.

30 minute zem ride down the highway to the village of Sonsoro. The ride would have been a lot more enjoyable if my helmet wasn’t a size too small.

Marji and Alex, Sonsoro is Alex’s village.

This woman quit her job in the city to marry the owner of this grocery store, where her and her daughters now work. Her husband is 30 years older than her and has a few other wives.

Children spying on the yovos (whiteys).

Parents often wanted photos with their kids. It’s likely that this is the first photo this family has ever had taken of them.

Butcher house.

After I took the above picture the butchers noticed me and invited me inside to get a better shot.

More kids in Sonsoro.

Getting some fried dough for lunch.

“@cba 9pm, Sonsora Benin. Dark, dusty, 100 degrees. Outside in a bug net reading Freakonomics by phone light. Oranges for dinner. Pretty good day.”

Another bush taxi ride, this time with goats strapped on top. Fun fact, screaming goats sound like screaming humans.

Relaxing (aka checking Facebook) at the Peace Corps outpost. There were 30 or so volunteers here for a development fundraiser in which the volunteers use their very limited personal food stipend to raise money for unofficial projects.

The bus back to Cotonou broke down for 4 hours No one was the least bit surprised. When stuff like this happens it’s just TIA, ‘This is Africa’.

Me! Of course I wore my Twitter shirt.

The End