A guest post from a media gathering trip to these two French-speaking countries that lie between Ghana and Nigeria.
Getting There: Took Ethiopian Airlines – Nairobi – Addis – Lome, then by car to Cotonou and then back to Addis and Nairobi. Ethiopian flies to both countries. Initially, I had set my trip to go into and out of Lome, but changed it mid-trip. The expense for the change was significant, but I assume it would have been minimal if I had done it that way upfront. The round trip cost was $750 plus $350 for the change.
On arrival: Arriving in Lome was easy, but the visa on arrival (American passport) was a bit of a pain of a process and wait. There was a list of the cost for every country in the world, except America and of course mine was much more than any listed. It was 10-20,000 CFA for most countries, while the US one was 27,000. I paid in USD cash, but they had to exchange it for CFA. It’s better to pay in CFA I’m sure.
Getting around: I had private transport the whole time. In both Togo and Benin, the massive majority of people move via private motorcycle. There are many bodas for hire as well. A few matatu type transportation as well and the rare taxi car for hire. The large buses were for transport to other towns and the small minivan was not seen on the highways between towns. There did not seem to be much foot traffic like you have in Nairobi. Cars and bikes were not fighting for space and everything seemed to flow smoothly.
Benin: Walking around my hotel was safe. It is next to the airport and it seemed that many of the government offices and embassies were around, so the security was higher. Many of my local friends have been pick-pocketed on the streets, but violence doesn’t seem to be as common as in Nairobi.
Togo seemed very safe overall. The crowds were smaller. A slower pace of life.
Staying in touch: It was very easy to get a local SIM card, much like in Kenya. Costs were very comparable. I forget the network in Togo, but I’m using MTN in Benin. I don’t recall if I could use Safaricom, I didn’t even try. I have not tried calling internationally on either network. Wi-Fi seems to be common, but the speeds vary a lot and the network is down often. I suspect it’s a problem with the ISP more than the local network. In Togo, my colleague’s wife happens to work at the office of the mobile company. I provided my passport and she gave me a SIM card. In Benin, a friend purchased the card for me, but I suspect it only required a copy of my ID to obtain it.
Where to Stay: I think the median cost is $60. I started at a place that cost $25 without breakfast that was a rat hole. I moved to a western level of accommodation for $80 with breakfast. All the hotels I stayed in, no matter how nice, always had AC & Wi-Fi.
The electricity was surprisingly good. I honestly don’t recall a single power cut, but I’m sure they happened. Most of the hostels had a generator.
Eating Out: Foo Foo is a staple somewhat similar to ugali. It’s wet and slimy and has more flavour to it, but fermented, like Ethiopian injera. Some forms have a lot more flavour than others with cassava being a common ingredient. No clue on the beer, but easy to get everywhere, as is French wine, even upcountry.
No clue with bar conversation is – it’s also all in French. French is a must. I had a variety of hosts with me the whole time. The only English I found was the little spoken by the staff in the hotel. I very much doubt there is a local English paper.
Shopping: In Benin, there is a very small market in front of a very nice supermarket next to the airport. It seems the majority of gifts are cloth-based. I did see some very unique, artistic metalwork. Of course, there is also the standard wooden animals. I was told there is another market, but I was not able to attend.
In Togo: I was taken to a small market with maybe a dozen stalls with a wide variety of items. For the most part, pretty similar to what you find in Kenya. There was one guy selling silver jewellery, like what you find in Ethiopia.
Sightseeing: In Togo, there is the main museum next to their national monument, but I didn’t have time to visit. The beach is incredible, but only locals use it. There doesn’t seem to be any structured area for tourism.
In Benin, the interior mountains are incredible sites to see, massive slabs of granite, there is a very famous sighting of Mary in Dassa. A very large church has been built there and every year massive numbers of West African Catholics come for a special service and ceremony. The church is only used for this event. I’m told that the town comes to a standstill. The church could probably hold over 10,000 people and I was told the grounds outside are completely covered in standing room only. I imagine over 25,000 people attend.
Card usage is extremely rare, even for nice restaurants. Food costs vary from $1 (roadside) to $20 (nicest restaurant) for a meal. CFA is used in both Togo & Benin everywhere. I used an ATM everywhere. They were found all over town. I used CFA for everything.
Odd Points: Partial buildings: West Africa’s way of saving money is to build their homes and churches over many years as money comes. Sadly, I have seen in rural Burkina Faso many, many ruined homes never finished. What a waste. But, from what I saw in Togo and Benin, most everything is eventually finished.
My hosts were rarely forthcoming with information and did not seem like problem solvers. I was constantly having to suggest solutions and pointing out gaps. I am not sure if I was missing culture cues or perhaps a lot was happening in the language that I was not picking up on. I appreciated that the roads seemed significantly safer.
Biggest surprise: The road structure. There are beautiful, nice main roads, and then dirt. Nothing in between. This seemed mostly true in both countries. Many roads in both countries were not paved but made from interlacing bricks. Black market fuel seems to be very big in both countries. It’s not as obvious in Togo, but it’s done very openly all over Cotonou, and it’s half the price compared to the pump.