Taking a public bus. The visiting expert rarely gets the chance. Usually there is a fat fourwheel drive with air conditioning waiting. But since I’m the only one leaving the workshop in Parakou at this time, it would be quite wasteful to have such a car making the six hour trip to Cotonou, and returning the following day, just for me. The bus costs just €8.40. As a student, you would always take public transport, and get a taste of real life. Later on you would drive your own car and observe everything from more distance.

After the workshop, introducing the FAN approach to forty-five participants from four West African countries, my job is done. Although others have done most of the work, this Christian community thanked me most warmly, sang for me and blessed me. So if anything was to go wrong, it was certainly not their fault.

At half six in the morning the parking lot is already crowded and buzzy. My driver (of the 4x4 car) had bought a ticket the day before, and that was no luxury. Between all the travellers and people trying to sell all kinds of things, he manages to put my suitcase in the bottom of the bus, after the driver put a peace of masking tape on it with my name. I’m glad to have my sturdy hard shell suitcase, as people are not very considerate.

I say goodbye to my driver as I want to get into the bus early to secure a good seat.

“Yes, that is possible”, he says, but I see him thinking “Why? It’s twenty minutes until departure and much more pleasant in the cool morning air outside.”

This is I only discover in the bus. On every seat there is a piece of the same masking tape with a name. No empty seat. I find my name on the corner of the very last row. Not very spacious, but my backpack fits underneath my legs. I’m lucky. Next to me arrives a young lady. She is not only modest in size, but also in her speech. When she is speaking on her mobile phone, as everyone is constantly doing here, you can hardly hear her. She is not talkative at all.

In front of me comes a mother with a child of a few years old carried on her back. Much more practical than a buggy in a full bus like this. The scarce hair is neatly tied up with colourful elastics. Nowhere in the world do women put so much effort into hairdressing, and you see the most fantastic creations passing by, often enhanced with long strings of artificial hair. So, this starts already at early age. The baby gazes at me with wide open eyes. A white man is definitely not normal.

The mobile phone has changed life here drastically. People usually own two handsets. The networks do not link well to each other, making it cheaper to use two phones instead of one. Hurray for the competitive market!

We are moving. As dawn is clearing, I see huge masses of black wings circulating above the city. They are bats, as big as crows. It looks a bit like a horror movie. Soon they will look for their trees again, but not for a quiet sleep. Under such a tree it is very noisy all day long. This is the price a city pays for waste that is not being cleaned up. The trash can is everywhere. Pieces of plastic wherever you look, and also litter which attracts insects, rodents and bats.

The cool air from the air conditioning in the bus is very pleasant. The largest tract of road, 250 kilometers from Parakou to Bohicon, is excellent. Thirty years ago this was a hazardous “toll road” and the journey took a long day. So that has improved at least. With other things I am disappointed. When I left Bénin thirty years ago I really hoped that one generation later you would see more improvements in the standard of living. What I see today in the countryside and cities is just as poor and miserable as before. Except that now they can call each other by mobile phone.

The bus is driving fast. Traffic rules are simple. The strongest and most brutal goes first. Buses are top of the pecking order. Everyone has to give way. Heavy trucks are the only obstacles for which the bus has to slow down regularly.

Now the aircon switches off. Immediately it becomes hot in the back of the bus. I understand; the bus is saving power to pick up speed again. Yes, now it is on again. But the periods without it become longer every time the bus has to regain speed again. We have to slow down very often, especially for very old ‘bachés; Peugeot 404 pick-ups with linen roofs, the standard public transport before the “taxi brousse” (bush taxi). They are still numerous. Amazing, for it takes a lot of ingenuity to keep these old wrecks rolling.

This would be the perfect environment to start an enterprise for towing, scrap metal and second hand car parts. Wrecks are everywhere along the road, some fresh, others completely overgrown. I have seen how they make new parts by melting scrap aluminium and steel. Not just for cars, but also pots and pans, and gas burners. But the capital to start something new is hard to find, just like originality. It remains marginal.

Unfortunately the windows at the back have been covered with dark foil. I cannot take pictures. For example, of this car, with nine living pigs tied up on the roof, neatly heads to tails, in the burning sun - something these white pigs cannot withstand at all. The Party for the Animals (a Dutch political party) would have their hands full in this country. Chickens are not much better off. Often you see them trussed together by the feet, hanging from the steer of a motorcycle, still alive.

That’s also something which has changed; endless streams of motorbikes. Closer to the city they become more and more numerous. A 100cc motorcycle from China only costs €500. You can buy on credit provided you have a job, and gasoline is very cheap. No licence required, nor registration.  No wonder that anyone with a job wants to have a machine like that. Although quite polluting, it is surely an advantage that they are four-stroke, instead of the two-stroke Mobilettes that were popular before: they were even dirtier.

The gasoline is so cheap because it is smuggled from Nigeria. You see little stalls everywhere along the road. Glass bottles used in the past for local wine are now filled with fuel. Most of them are one litre, but there are also big bulbs of twenty. Sometimes they put a neon light behind them in the evening. Then they light up nicely in green and yellow. But of course it’s terribly dangerous. But who doesn’t want to profit, when regular gas station prices are more than double? Only the diesel cars and four wheel drives stop there, the latter because official projects have to justify their expenditures.

After one hour of driving, the bus stops in the middle of nowhere. It appears to be a short “pause pipi” (relief stop). A few women kneel down in a ditch. It is easier for those with long African robes than for those with jeans, but still more fuss than for the men.

Then we will not stop anymore for a long time. Two hours more make my back side feel like iron. I try to move a bit and find a different position but there is hardly any space to do so. I eat some pieces of dried mango, and offer it to the lady next to me, but she refuses politely; it is too sweet.

The aircon really has problems. More windows are opened and not closed anymore when eventually it revives. Now it has stopped completely. In the back of the bus, windows cannot be opened. Bad luck for me. I am getting soaking wet. I ask the man in front of me to open his window a little bit more. That is already better. As long as the air keeps circulating the situation is bearable. Now there is still a little curtain that keeps the wind flow from reaching me.

Somewhere form my backpack I take a little rope and tie back the curtain with a nice sailors knot. My neighbour looks at it with a face that says “You have to be white to do such a thing”.

At the larger villages there are big chunks of wood on the road. Very effective for slowing down traffic. You have to zigzag around them. There are also many roadblocks where policemen try to generate money. If drivers do not pay, they can be infuriating in their controls. Which car doesn’t have technical faults? The one that paid the police.

We approach a big roadblock. At both sides there is a long queue. We have already passed it when a huge lorry coming from the other side is just passing by the waiting vehicles. My immediate thought is it must be a Nigerian. So many Nigerians have become completely careless about everything. We cannot pass until he has squeezed back into his own lane again. But people are angry and don’t want to give in, so it takes a long time before he gets the space. And then it appears that many others have followed his example. Again it takes forever before we are on the move again.

The heat in the bus is really unbearable. But nobody is complaining. Inside it is completely silent.

We have been on our way for four hours now. No pause for the driver. Nor for my tortured bottom. I ask my neighbour when there will still be another stop.

“Ten more minutes.” is her encouraging answer. But it takes 45. Then we finally reach Bohicon and we can stretch our legs. But what do I do with the valuables in my backpack? I am not in the mood of carrying it with me outside, although that would be prudent. I gamble. It’s in the very last row anyway. Outside I eat my packed lunch, with some cold Coca Cola vendors are selling everywhere around me. But I keep an eye at the back of the bus. That means I cannot reach the shade, which is too far away. By moving I recover a bit. While entering the bus I buy a bunch of small bananas. Very tasty. The lady next to me likes them too (finally). And then we are back en route.

The last part of the road is terrible. Full of potholes, and completely torn apart by all the heavy traffic. In this region they have not voted for the president, people told me. It will remain that way, for he just has been re-elected, I think. But as the only major road from South to North, one would think that there is more at stake than regional interests and politics. But as long as the big bus drives fast it more or less flies over the potholes, and so it does.

Next to me, the whole row of passengers is sleeping. All heads move from left to right in perfect harmony: it is a funny sight. The young child in front of me cannot stand it any longer and starts to cry out loud. Not so strange after sitting still for six hours on the lap of mama, who manages to restore peace with a bottle of Fanta.

Outside, the increasing number of motorcycles indicate that we are approaching Cotonou. Sometimes you see a whole family on one motorbike. One child on the tank, another squeezed between dad and mom, who has a baby at the back, all together zigzagging around the potholes and the traffic.

After seven long hours, I get off the bus at Abomey Calavi, the suburb town of Cotonou where I used to work thirty years ago. My suitcase stands there already waiting for me. That was efficient.

Finally some fresh air. Still 33 degrees and very humid. But everything is relative. I am wet all over. Now I can refresh myself and have some rest before catching my plane home, with a fresh taste of Africa under my skin. Which will not flush away in the shower.

C’est l’Afrique.