On the 23rd of October Ramadan ended and was celebrated with a 2-day public holiday following on the weekend. In true Nigerian government communications stylee, people were kept in the dark until the very last minute about whether we would get one or two days off, effectively preventing anyone from planning to travel on the bank holiday. But, taking my chances I decided I would bank on having Monday and Tuesday off and got myself a visa to Benin to visit over the weekend. I convinced Yemisi and Bimbo to come and to keep it real – crossing the Nigeria-Benin border on foot.
Yemisi’s driver Chimeze dropped us at the border and we embarked on our adventure. We crossed at Seme and even before we got to the actual checkpoint (if one can talk of such a thing) we were greeted by a chaotic, shoddy-looking hub of activity with hawkers, okadas and taxi drivers, blackmarket money-changers and thousands of bizibodies with unidentifiable purpose milling around the place. It was so disorientating that we almost missed the first set of passport controllers as they melted perfectly into the muddy mess of the whole place and if they had not dragged their clunky mobile border control barriers (in the shape of a modified rake) with them to block our way, we would have strolled past unknowingly. After these guys we got to the real checkpoint, which was nothing like I’ve ever seen: it was a long series of desks by the side of the road so you had to make a special detour to get there – again if Bimbo would not have shepherded us that way I would just have kept on walking straight ahead on the road and into Benin. The officials – some of them in uniform, some of them plainclothes – were chilling behind their desks, surrounded by characters who only god knows if they were their colleagues or friends, with nothing better to do on the long weekend than spend some time at border control.
The first desk checked our yellow fever certificates. To the officials’ dismay mine was in order, even though they had stern words regarding my name not being on the cover of my certificate, only inside the document. Moving on to Yemisi and Bimbo the thorough inspection paid off – they both had some data missing from their certificates, which were then declared invalid. Ah, how would such a situation be remedied – could they get new emergency vaccinations on site? No! Should they be turned away at the border? Of course not! In return for some monetary compensation they were promptly issued with new yellow fever certificates containing the missing dates for immunization, which miraculously materialized out of thin air. This was the point I realized that anyone carrying any old disease can cross Nigerian borders as long as they have the cash to bribe the officials.
Then we came to a new desk and the questioning began: why are we going to Benin, what is our occupation?... and so on. When Yemisi and I answered we work for a non government organization, the officials started to really lay into us ‘Nawow, you people must have lot of money… NGOs are a business… maybe I come work for you... what can you do to develop me?’ As it often does, the conversation started on a provoking note, but as we were speaking, took on a jokier tone and in the end the same official who started picking on us signaled to his colleague at the next desk to wave us through without even showing our passports. Well, it was about time to get some preferential treatment as all the while we were being quizzed about our purpose to enter Benin less than respectable characters were waltzing through the checkpoint, just nodding to the officials. No passport, no yellow fever certificate, no nothing. And the bread sellers and okadas were never once stopped by anybody, crossing the border innumerable times in a day. Lesson number two: crossing Nigerian borders has nothing to do with having your documents in order.
A few more desks, a few more forms to fill and a few more 200 naira notes silently slipped to the officials and we were through the Nigerian check. Now passport control on the Benin side. People were calmer, there was none of the milling and buzzing of shady characters around, but there was one similarity with the Nigerian border control: the officials on the Benin side also had to be bribed to process our passports. I suppose sitting two feet away from their Nigerian counterparts had taught them a thing or two. This is how corruption breeds – it really spreads like a disease taking over the minds and souls of people, going from one person to another, from one nation to the next.
But I digress… We quickly found a cab and our French-Yoruba driver, Michael, whose Yoruba Yemisi and Bimbo could hardly decipher and whose French also had such a thick Benin accent that it was impossible to make out. Anyway, we hired him to take us to Grand Popo, a 2h drive outside Cotonou. I had done the not very thorough due diligence on our destination. I found a website but it didn’t really have an address or directions on how to get to the auberge, but I reckoned it would be somehow obvious.
Michael did indeed say he knew Grand Popo and it wasn’t until Yemisi double-checked with him on where we were going that he started to squirm. We had spent over 1.5h on the road at this time. He said we’d already passed the Grand Popo he was thinking of and this place wherever we were going was much further away, so he needed to be paid more than the agreed fare. We got down from his car, found a business centre and I tried calling the auberge to figure out whether we should indeed turn back and to get some proper directions. Phone engaged. With my nonexistent French I enquired if the proprietor knew where Grand Popo was. We somehow established it was 12 km further on and I trusted him more than our shady cabbie so we continued. And yes indeed, finally we spotted the signs to our village and drove through a deserted holiday town with Caribbean looking sheds and swaying palms.
After our border ordeal and uncertain cab ride arriving was pure bliss. The auberge was in a to-die-for setting: the house was a colonial structure reminiscent of an old hacienda, the grounds were shaded by big trees, the terrace overlook miles of uninhabited stretch of beach. They were playing Fela in the speakers and we had a fantastic meal accompanied by rose wine. The environment was so peaceful and meditative and stressfree, we instantly relaxed and loved every minute of it, I don’t think I’ve slept so well since in Nigeria as in my breezy, aircon free room with no TV or other modernities.
We explored the area, strolled on the beach and found a little rasta village close to our auberge. There was a cute rotunda that served as a beach bar, with reggae choons blasting out from it and the owner Francois served us a carbonated fruit juice called Fizzy, which quickly became a Grand Popo favourite. We came back to his place for dinner – he had one type of food on the menu, shrimp, but cooked in a variety of ways and we had it with couscous and rice and it was divine. The wine was from a carton and we sat under the stars chatting, making friends with Francois’ cute dog Jude. It appeared (with Yemisi doing most of the talking and translating) that Francois was an orphan who’d worked as a guide in the whole of west Africa, had spent bits of time in Spain, France, Germany (mainly through girlfriends he’d met on his trips) and would have liked to go back to Europe but he’d been refused visa too many times to want to try again. So he found this little plot on the beach and set up his rasta bar and lived in the back with his artist friends in a commune. One of them was a painter and textile artist and I particularly loved his textiles, which apparently are going to go on exhibition in Helsinki later on this year. Francois talked of the locals suspicion towards rastas, his place had been raided by 14 police with guns and he said women were too much wahalla, wanting him to cut his hear, give up smoking etc. We started talking about our border experience and it turned out he knew a lot about crossing borders illegally in West Africa to get to the desired destination, Europe. He had been following the same route and had filmed some of the refugees experiences.
Our days passed quickly and before we knew it our cabbie (we had traded up from shifty-Michael to rasta-Jildas) was waiting for us in his multi-coloured taxi with Marley’s head painted on the doors to whisk us back to Cotonou and the much-dreaded border. On the way back I paid more attention to the road and the settlements we passed. All in all it was not too different from Nigeria. People in native, carrying loads on their heads, riding okadas… but the distinction was still clear. The roads were not as crowded, traffic was orderly and honking was not the done thing. Okada drivers were wearing uniforms, little kiddies on their way back from school were accompanied by grownups, the roadside outdoor stands selling things were not makeshift sheds, but extensions to the shops behind them. It looked poor, but more organized, neater, cleaner… And I loved watching the women carrying French sticks on their heads and the fat-bellied massive containers of oil sold on stands everywhere and the ever-recognizable green cross of French pharmacies constituting a common landmark. This was Francophone West Africa.
So we came back to the border and this time around I was made to wait at one of the desks by an official who decided the oyibo would have to pay no matter what. He kept ignoring me while everyone else was attended to, using my passport as his elbow rest. Once again people were everywhere, confusion, shouting, begging, new passports landing on the desk, whispering between officials… and the eternal wait. And then, all of a sudden before I realized a guy had rushed off with my passport, noone knew if he was an official or some tout and I freaked out. Seme is so big and once someone disappears, they disappear. Would I be stuck in nomansland between Benin and Nigeria? I was informed by the mean desk official that my passport had been taken to the other side to check what the problem was with it. What would be the problem – I had all the visas and certificates needed. He could not answer this, but anyway it was beside the point. Once he had sufficiently demonstrated his power and my helplessness he summoned me to the desk saying that I had to leave a gift in my passport for him. Say no more, at this point I silently obeyed, no point to try anything however wrong or corrupt the guy, I wanted to just get through. I gave the bribe discretely only to get from his fellow official ‘You have not been talking to me, only my colleague’ meaning I should pay him off too. I gave my usual ‘but you are brothers, you should share now’ and somehow in the end got the necessary stamp to pass. Yemisi told me she’d never come to Benin with me again but this was before we got stopped by the narcotics guys who ripped her apart instead…
By the time we found Chimeze and the car on the Nigerian side we were haggard and dying for a wee, but happy to be sitting in a car heading back towards Lagos. Unfortunately, there were over 10 checkpoints still to negotiate by car before being able to breathe a final sigh of relief. And as luck would have it the narcotics police didn’t have much to do that day so they decided to stop us and take us to their little roadside checkpoint in the bush. One man was leisurely sucking on a grass straw, with his feet up on a desk under a tree, the others were attending to us. Our main official was polite at first but soon started his intimidating questioning as he was checking our bags through, ripping out my underwear. Yemisi had to go to the bathroom and this raised their suspicion immensely and they made a big deal out of how she may have wanted to dispose of whatever drug she had using the bush, so they sent an inspector to the ‘scene of the crime’ to check. Of course he found nothing there. Then he started his interrogation saying ‘I know a smoker when I see one. I want you to answer me have you ever smoked? And if you answer no I will take you back to Seme border and have you do a marijuana test in our lab’ In the end I think what saved us was that they found out Bimbo was a lawyer and he had his inhaler with him. As a little side-insult the big oga under the tree pulled me aside to look at what magazines I had with me. I showed him and he said disappointedly ‘Oh, I thought it was phonography’ I said I didn’t know what phonography was just to provoke a response out of him and then asked him ‘Why do you insult me like this, Sir’ which finally shut him up. It was probably not the wisest and most diplomatic approach but there’s only so much hassle you can take.
When we finally joined the throng of cars negotiating the massive afternoon go-slow towards Ikeja, our dignity bruised but relieved and savouring the sweet memory of chilled Grand Popo, we concluded this was a clearcut case of ‘when keeping it real goes wrong’!