Cotonou – City of Zem (restons Zem …)

Ah, the ‘Zem’. A wasp-like creature, present across much of West Africa, but Cotonou seems to be its spiritual hive. No matter where you go in the city, you are followed by the incessant drone, the low-frequency monotone buzzing as hundreds pass by in swarms that are hard to dodge. Easily spotted by their bright yellow bodies and faint smell of burning rocket fuel, they are pretty much the symbol of the city.

Zem in Cotonou
Sting like a bee, float like a brick.

In truth, they’re a convenient way to get around the city – they’re nippy so can weave through traffic, they’re quick so you don’t get stuck for too long (unlike buses), they go pretty much wherever you want, they’re easy to pick up, and they’re relatively cheap (5,000 CFA being top-end cost). Yes, they might look quite dangerous, but trust them, they’re the best way to get around the city. Just don’t bother asking for a helmet…

Cotonou is the largest city in Benin (population around 850,000) and it shows. It’s not a city that’s going to win any design awards, nor is it a city that would be high on a list for romantic weekend getaways. It’s quite fond of concrete, the only trees are token efforts in the middle of the sand-covered pavements (concrete slabs – though that does make them easy to wander barefoot on), the roads are crowded and full of exhaust fumes, and the overall aesthetic is of a smoky, polluted, grey.

But, and this is a but that Sir Mix-a-Lot would be very amenable to, it needs to be remembered that beauty is more than skin-deep. Just as Santiago de Chile and Valparaiso (heck, Chile as a whole!) were unimpressive on first viewing, the longer you stay there and the more you see, the more you grow to appreciate what there is.

For colour, one could do much worse than visit the catholic cathedral, near the river. Being British, I’ve grown up with cathedrals being grandiose (pseudo-)gothic affairs, with ornate decoration filling in the spaces left by enormous stone edifices that would make any grown human cower under the power of an almighty deity. Large, impressive, a symbol of opulence and other-worldly power.
Generally, we’d not paint them red and white.

Cotonou Cathedral
Research has not indicated to me the reasoning behind the colour scheme. I’ve since found there’s another similar styled church in Rome (Chiesa di San Paolo Dentro le Mura); there may be others.

Looking like an extra from a ‘Where’s Wally’ book, the cathedral does feel particularly odd and out-of-place, both as a religious building and as a landmark of Cotonou. Benin, like many countries in the area, is a melting-pot of religion; a quarter is Roman Catholic, a quarter Muslim, the rest a mix of Voodoo, non-Catholic Christians, and a variety of other beliefs. This is partly reflected by the patchwork nature of the peoples; there is no uniform ‘Beninese’ culture, rather ‘Benin’ is made up of several ‘peoples’, each with their own culture. The Fulani and Bariba, amongst others, live in the North of the country and are predominantly Muslim, while for example the Aja in the South tend to practice Voodoo. Christianity was imported by the French and is still strongly practised, though it didn’t appear as vocally as in Ghana. Yet, there hasn’t been any overt sign of religious tension.

The main backpacker ghetto is a quite residential series of streets surprisingly near the airport, in an area called ‘Haie Vive’. It’s where most of the ex-pats who work in Benin live and eat; it’s also where many of the foreign embassies are, including such delightful places as the DRC and Haiti.

Cotonou Haie Vive
The Haie Vive area – quite middle-class, peaceful, and elegant, with prices to match.

It’s a very pleasant area, with tree-lined streets and relatively expensive westernised restaurants; it feels a little odd though, exactly like it’s a ‘dead-end’, tucked away from the rest of the city – an add-on, if you like.

It is, in effect, pretty much the opposite of Dantopka Market, both geographically and spiritually. Dantopka is the largest market area in the country, and also where share-taxis/minibus combis depart from on their way around the city and all points East. Wikipedia claims the market has a commercial turnover of 1bn CFA/day (about £1.2m); while this may be an exaggeration, it’s a very bustling and busy place and does cover quite a large area.

Dantopka Market
Dantopka Market. It stretches off into the distance on the right, and also goes a little behind me towards the river. But much easier to navigate than the market in Kumasi.

A smaller market in the West of the city, while less important in and of itself, I also found notable due to a railway line running through the middle of it. Indeed, I was walking past it one day while I was there, and a train came by and plodded through it. The stallholders moved out of the way at pretty much the last minute, but didn’t seem terribly hurried or worried. Nor, it must be said, did the train which couldn’t have been doing more than about 10mph.

Train in a Market
See, that train’s pretty close. But then, it’s a goods line; it’s not like you have commuter trains zipping by every 15 minutes.

Now, as you might already have guessed, I’m quite a fan of statues and public sculptures. I’m also quite partial to Communist memorabilia, perhaps due to my childhood when Soviet symbolism was used as a kind of stereotype for both socialism and Eastern Europe in general. Given its recent history (Benin was self-defined as ‘Marxist’ in the 70s and 80s), it comes as no surprise to learn that remnants of this period still remain in the city. The most obvious demonstration of this is at the ‘Place de l’Etoile Rouge’ (a good name itself to start with!), where we find an overbearingly-large concrete ‘star’ with a huge plinth, at the very top of which stands a statue straight out of the “Communist Textbook” – an ‘ordinary worker’ with a gun (fight against capitalism), some wood (power the fight against capitalism), and a farming implement, probably a hoe (feeding the workers so they can fight against capitalism). You get the idea. Interestingly, as it stands in the middle of a huge roundabout filled with buzzing zem, no-one really gets close to it – I guess it’s designed to be viewed from a distance.

Place de l'Etoile Rouge
Yep, very 1950s. There’s a couple of other Marxist-inspired statues around Cotonou, including the rather odd commemoration of a failed coup.

Cotonou also sees itself as a cultural venue. Every year several of the city’s theatres and clubs play host to a series of concerts under the banner of the “Festival Cotonou Couleurs Jazz”. Serendipitously, I’d managed to time my visit to be in Cotonou while it was on this year; completely unplanned. One of the venues was only a 20min walk from the hostel (and I did walk, not take a zem!), so I thought I’d pop along to check it out.

I saw two performers: Thierry ‘Titi’ Robin, a French guitarist/composer, favouring traditional gypsy-like music but with cultural twists, particularly influenced by styles and rhythms from India, Turkey, and North Africa; and the vocal group ‘Zap Mama’, led by Belgian singer Marie Daulne. She tries to fuse Western with African rhythms, which in part reflects her heritage (half-Belgian half-Bantu, born in what is now DRC but evacuated to Brussels before her first birthday due to conflict) – it leads to a kind of harmony/hip-hop vibe, the sort of thing that Paul Simon would have championed in the 1980s, but this is far more genuine.

Train in a Market
Zap Mama: Marie Daulne is the one holding the microphone; she started off in the audience watching & joined in half-way through their set.

One final point of note; I was in a café somewhere in the West of the city, having lunch, when it became clear that one of the regulars, a stereotypical African lady probably in her early 60s, was trying to hit on me. After passively-aggressively indicating my lack of interest wasn’t working, I resorted to the Anglophone standby of ‘no, I don’t understand, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about’. Eventually she left, but not before rubbing my hand and repeating her offer to meet her outside later.



Visited 9-13 December

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