Natitingou – City of Mild Masochism

A new country; same red-stone roads, same ‘flexible’ take on vehicle capacity, same food, same burning sunshine. To be honest, none of this is negative – it’s certainly different to what I’m used to in the UK and right now we’re getting towards long cold Winter days, grey skies, and dour grumpy attitudes, so my initial impressions of Benin have been a nice continuation of Burkina. I’ll confess I’m not a ‘sun-loving criminal’ but I think the more time you spend here, the more you do get used to the heat and, dare I say it, even the ‘siesta time’ in the early afternoons. It’s why everything starts so early in the morning.

The main road in Natitingou; it never felt as busy as it looked like it should have been.

The downside of the hot pebble roads has been that my sandals have worn through under the ball of both feet – I’m pretty much barefoot regardless of whether or not I’m wearing them! Maybe I’ll get used to it.

Me sitting on the side of the street; the side roads were like the pavement – pebbly and red, like much of Africa.

Natitingou is another example of a ‘linear village’ – one long, paved, dual-carriageway running North-South with tracks leading off on both sides. ‘Village’ is probably harsh – it’s got a shade over 100,000 people, but distributed over quite a wide area, so it feels smaller than it really is. Conveniently, it has a full selection of mobile phone shops; while this sounds like a random observation, I am planning on being in the country for just under two weeks, so, following my success in Ghana, I got me a PAYG SIM (MTN network, same as Ghana).
Possibly not that interesting for a travel blog post, but this might come in useful for someone if they ever follow in my footsteps: getting a SIM in Ghana was quite easy; I merely wandered up to a street stall selling them, and bought one for 5 Cedis, topping up whenever. The process took a handful of seconds. In Benin, I went into an MTN shop, and went through a whole series of questions before having to hand over my passport and being properly registered with it. (In French, yes. Nobody was more impressed with that than myself.) Now possibly I was supposed to have done that in Ghana too, but maybe Benin takes itself a little more seriously. It will be interesting to compare the two countries afterwards.

Crossing the border into Benin saw no problems, barring that only two of us had Yellow Fever certificates so I was stuck wandering around in the mid-day heat waiting for the other five to be innoculated, in a dodgy-looking shack covered with a dirty white curtain. If ever there’s an advert for ‘making sure you’ve had your jabs before you go’, it would be that.

Finding a hotel proved to be a little more difficult. Wandering along un-named streets (both on my map and on the ground) for maybe an hour trying to locate a specific hotel that was in my guidebook, which I obviously hadn’t tried to book in advance because, hey, I haven’t seen many tourists anyway, and I’m in a reasonably obscure town at the ‘wrong’ end of a relatively unvisited country, who needs to do that?, having to ask a passing moto driver, and eventually finding it only to discover that it, er, closed about three weeks earlier …
Not to worry this time at least though, as en route I’d passed another place anyway – it looked a bit scruffy on the outside but they had plenty of spare capacity in small circular ‘huts’. And Wi-Fi in the bar/restaurant area, perhaps surprisingly. Slightly boring limited menu though.

My Hotel in Natitingou
The entrance to the hotel I found that was open. Inside were a few weird statues scattered around the grounds.

The area around Natitingou, the “Atakora Region”, is noted for its traditional village architecture. I never managed to get out there on this trip, unfortunately (maybe I’ll be back one day?!), but in Natitingou is a museum (the “Musée d’Arts et de Traditions Populaires) dedicated to the local Somba people who’ve been living and working the land here for centuries, and includes details about where and how they live.
The houses are … they reminded me a little of small castles; they look like they’re built to be easily defended, often with turreted towers, gates, and a tiered structure, where people live on the upper levels while the ground floor is for storage, livestock, and defence.

Traditional Somba Houses
Two examples of Somba houses in the museum. People enter through the main door, but don’t reach the living quarters until they climb an internal stairwell. The upper floor is both a good lookout point, and easy to protect from below.

The museum also goes into detail about tribal culture, with a large section devoted to initiation rites. These are, as you might expect, largely symbolic, especially with their use of the number ‘9’, which is deemed to bring luck, but also with some application of masochism – many of the rituals last 9 days, for instance, including being held in a cell for nine days eating only millet porridge (to ensure they become accustomed to frugality and improve their endurance), and there’s often 9 days between different parts of the initiation ceremony.

It’s not a very large museum, but it’s certainly informative.

There’s no dominant religion in the town – Christianity and Islam seem to coexist in reasonable harmony, and adherents of both are wary of doing anything to anger or otherwise disturb the spirits present in the tribal religions, including not pounding millet grains in the evening. Apparently the hammering makes similar sounds to those of the local spirits.

Mosque in Natitingou
One of the mosques in Natitingou; a small one just off the main highway. It’s rare to see a mosque built for function rather than design.

I’m liking Benin so far 🙂

Visited 5-7 December 2014

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