First day in Cotonou, Benin

First work day today. I got up at 6.30am, got ready and went downstairs for breakfast. It wasn’t impressive but perfectly adequate and I had watermelon! Any breakfast with watermelon in it gets my vote! 🙂

I was supposed to be picked up for work at 7.30am but the driver walked up to me at 7.24am and interrupted my watermelon munching. I asked me for a couple of minutes without realizing there were others waiting in the car. I thought it was just going to be me. Ooops!

That’s where the fun began. I couldn’t get enough of my surroundings while we were driving around picking up employees of the company.

There are very few paved streets in Cotonou (mostly main busy roads) while most side residential streets (including some main roads) are red dirt littered with holes which makes for very bumpy rides. I thought the streets were not paved because the neighbourhood (near the hotel) happens to be a poor one but it turned out that it’s actually one of the better ones. I could tell after a while because the houses around here were much nicer (white square buildings with flat roofs typical for hot climates) compared to some of the other neighbourhoods we visited.

One of many dirt roads in and around Cotonou. This is in Calavi, where the office is.

One of many dirt roads in and around Cotonou. This is in Calavi, where the office is.

I was smiling, nodding and saying ‘Bonjour!’ in a perfect accent and intonation to every new passenger who got in the company car. Soon however I will find myself in a situation that requires more than a word in French at which point I will be discovered for my lack of knowledge of the French tongue. This would inspire some uncomfortable looks coming my way and would slow down the rapport building with those around me thus reminding me of my outsider status for a little longer.

The buildings in Cotonou are mostly unfinished or falling apart. There are very few modern, fully completed buildings around and they are in a stark contrast with all the flimsy shacks lining the streets. Some are clearly homes, while others are what I suppose you would call businesses.

I saw a shop which sold petrol in big glass jars and plastic bottles of various sizes (they call those petrol stations around here), right next to some cooking pots placed over a fire and also right next to something that looked like pickled eggs in a glass jar but probably wasn’t.

Apparently it is a lot cheaper to buy petrol from those improvised petrol stations along the road (fuel coming from Nigeria) than it is to buy at an actual petrol station. At first I thought they were just used by the hundreds of motorbikes zigzagging the streets but it turns out cars and trucks also use them.

What else is there on the streets? Lots of other shops selling motorbikes (used and new), tires for those bikes, repair garages for the bikes, food stalls, clothes, furniture, wood, building materials and a lot more.

I think they call these street food stall ‘maquis’

There are many poor people mixing with not so poor people. There are women with amazing, strong, voluptuous bodies and perky bottoms. There are men and women wearing traditional, colorful clothes. There are women and children carrying big baskets on their heads. There are babies being carried around strapped to their mothers’ backs. There is sand and red dirt everywhere. There is a lot of vegetation as well.

I am fascinated by the way women carry stuff on their heads. Sometimes they would sell food on the street and would carry a whole kitchen on their head. Amazing!

I am fascinated by the way women carry stuff on their heads. Sometimes they would sell food on the street and would carry a whole kitchen on their head. Amazing!

We reached the office. Turns out it is surrounded by fields where scientists grow various types of rice. The actual grounds are beautifully maintained, packed with palm trees, flowers, shrubs and chirping birds. I wish you could smell it, hear it and feel it. I love it.

The office building and grounds. Stunning!

The office building and grounds. Stunning!

 

 

The actual office rooms are small and the English would say ‘cosy’.

All of us got dropped off at what looked like a main gate and I started asking how to find the people I was supposed to be working with. Nobody seemed to know that I was starting today but eventually (several people and a couple of offices later) I got taken to the colleague I was to be working with for the next 4 weeks. He didn’t seem too prepared for my arrival either. He made up for it with a warm welcome and kindness making sure that I had hot water for my tea and that I was comfortable.

Work went well. I am starting to feel more and more like a real consultant (this is my first proper consultancy role).

I got shown to the on-site cafeteria for lunch where the guy selling the £1 tickets for a cooked lunch was trying to get me to speak his language J The food consisted of rice (I eat rice twice a day, every day), chicken, two veggie sides, salad, and some local corn brown thing that I chose not to try. There was also bread, hot green salsa and to my surprise a pineapple juice was included in the price!

I’d barely started eating when I was joined by a couple (and then two more) foreigners who spoke English to me! Turns out the young, pretty one was from Lebanon and worked as a research coordinator. The others were from Nigeria (dressed in traditional attire completed with a hat), Japan (makes sense in a rice research facility) and another lad from Cameroon. It was fun to have some company for lunch.

Back in the office, some config work, a quick meeting with one that turned into a long meeting with many and made me late for my ride back home. Sanwidi (my colleague) arranged for a driver to take me home and 20mins, many photos and more impressions later I was at the hotel.

Many of the people working at Africa Rice are not from Benin similar to the diversity at ICARDA in Beirut. It is all because of war. People feeling their countries, following their companies around.

People I came across were very nice, a bit lazy and with quite the attitude. I have to remind myself that it is not rudeness and that it’s just the way they are. It is what makes them who they are.

After work, I took all my jewelry off, got some cash and a canvas bag and walked to the local mall/supermarket for some shampoo (my hair goes all fluffy from the humidity) and other such items. Unlike the hotel in Beirut, the one here hardly gave me any toiletries. There are a couple of small bars of soap and a very dusty green shampoo. Good thing I took the ones from Beirut!

There’s no gym at the hotel (I started running recently and really want to keep it up) and it was too dark to run outside so I went to have dinner. Then I was asked to change rooms. The guy who helped me with the suitcases also wanted me to take him with me wither to Bulgaria or London. He didn’t have any preferences as long as I took him somewhere. The fact that he only spoke 3-5 words in English didn’t stop him from asking for my phone or e-mail (again he didn’t have any preferences) at which point I said no and send him away.

I have had men talking to me, joking, or wanting to help me in some way everywhere I go. It is uncomfortable.

I am now in my new standard room. The only difference with the VIP room is that it doesn’t have a desk (which I wasn’t going to use anyway) and it doesn’t have a comfy armchair with a footrest which I quite liked. It is also facing the street which makes it noisier and there is no safety box. On the positive side I am closer to the Internet signal.

Off to bed now. Sweet dreams y’all!

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