Arriving at night in Cotonou, the commercial capital of Benin and typical of West African cities, you are enveloped in a mist of dust, smoke of cooking fires and burning rubbish, as the dawn breaks these flavours are joined by less savoury ones such as traffic fumes and sewage. The dust is courtesy of the Harmattan wind that is progressively delivering the Sahara desert and every bit of loose dirt in the Sahel region on its southern borders, to the rest of West Africa. Hence, until the rainy season arrives it’s not a destination for asthma sufferers or cleanliness obsessed travellers. Within five minutes of leaving a hotel westerners usually manage to look grubbier than one of the numerous, local street kids. Immaculately dressed women in a prismatic swathe of dresses and headgear will step from muddy hovels without a mark on them; men in either African or western suits can step out of clapped out taxis, which have been disgorging fumes and dispensing loose mechanical parts in equal measure, after an eight hour journey with three others in the back seat, almost entirely crease and stain free. Whilst I have yet to discover the secret to this ability, I have come to suspect that, as for the women, it is in part due to changing clothes at least three times a day, which also goes towards explaining the ubiquity of the sight of women doing the washing. This dedication to personal presentation goes far beyond clothes: there are probably more hairdressers and barbers in Africa than any other service sector providers and the sight of mobile pedicurists, clicking their scissors to advertise their trade is a common one, more so for men, although women with head borne baskets of cosmetics provide a range of beauty therapies for the ladies. These trades people are joined by cobblers/shoeshiners who clack their little wooden boxes of tools to advertise their services whilst patrolling the streets, on securing a customer these boxes also serve as seats to work from.
Cotonou is much like other African cities in having a thriving, pavement based economy: from humble vendors with but one item to sell, to great sprawling displays of luggage or kitchen ware. Many move between the traffic at junctions selling just about anything that can be carried, in fact it would be perfectly feasible to do your week’s shopping without ever having left the car, which makes the USA’s obsession with drive thru services look quite modest. Each one of these dedicated and without doubt, hardworking sales people is aspiring to attain that next step up in the system which will one day lead to a market stall or, God and or the spirits willing, maybe even a shop. Conservative politicians looking for inspiration for the “get on your bike and find a job instead of sitting on your fat arse claiming benefits” mentality will find fertile ground on the crumbling pavements of Africa. After all, it takes more than a degree of optimism to sell an Iron Maiden T shirt on a continent where heavy metal is virtually unknown. However, I suspect that for every one that sips the sweet taste of success from the holy grail of shopkeeperdom another dies a lingering death in a grimy backstreet, unable to afford some vital medicine or enough food to keep them going. Indeed, inspiration and despair walk hand in hand on poverty street but even those reduced to begging can appear reluctant to acknowledge the latter, at least to a foreigner such as me whose wealth is to them as Bill Gates is to ours. Maybe this reluctance on the part of some to play the misery card when begging is part of the national character because the Beninois seem a particularly friendly lot on a continent that puts up some stiff competition in this game. It’s the kind of place where you can go around greeting all and sundry with the kind of relentless, cheery optimism that, back home, would soon have you placed under a strict regime of heavy medication, because that’s just not the kind of way we do things in Britain. Many has been the time that on one of the many narrow or irregular stretches of pavement someone has stood back to allow me to pass, offering a smile or bonjour.
The Christmas spirit had obviously not yet deserted Cotonou by the time I arrived in January: a loud hailer interminably bleeping jingle bells serenades the market; numerous signs wish everyone a merry Xmas and happy new year; several people sport santa hats oblivious to the stifling heat and humidity, but red cloaked santa images and synthetic white powder laden, plastic Christmas trees have never looked quite so incongruous in the sweltering tropical squalor where none of the hundreds of local languages have words for snow.