"We are leaving in fourteen minutes", the bus driver says. Yeah, right, and Queen Elizabeth II will serve us tea. I come back to the station twenty minutes later. The bus left... six minutes ago. I am stunned: schedules exist in the Sahel. Welcome to the Republic of Benin.
At around 113,000 sq. km (43,600 sq. mi.) Benin is roughly the size of Bulgaria or the state of Pensylvania. Its tropical south where most of Beninese live is in stark contract to semi-arid sparsely populated north. The powerful Kingdom of Dahomey existed here from the 17th century with slave trade as one of the pillars of its economy. Seized by the French in the 19th century, it gained independence in 1960 as many other African countries.
Neat yellow Russian-made minibuses ply the roads of Benin. It is a reminder of a romance the former French colony had with the Soviet Union and its allies. Back in the 1970s, Dahomey (as it was then called) decided to implant marxism-leninism. Socialism and prosperity would flourish from the Bay of Guinea to the Sahel. They named the country after the powerful Kingdom of Benin that once existed in current Nigeria and that was it. Marx and Lenin went bust as soon as Eastern Europe closed the tap with money around 1990.
Malanville is in the northeast of Benin, at the border with Niger. It is a fascinating place with a unique mix of ethnicities and cultures. And so, after quite a tedious journey, I arrive there in the evening and drop off to sleep at the nearest guest house. The next morning a guy with a smile to die for serves me an omelette and a cup of tea. I am ready to explore the town.
As I walk along a dusty street of Malanville, I come across a small Roman Catholic chapel. Gentle music and chants fill the air around it. About fifty per cent of the Beninese are Christians of different denominations. Muslims and the practitioners of Vodoun or Orisha (that derive from traditional African belief systems) comprise the remaining half of the population. With intermarriage between diverse ethnic groups in Benin, it is not uncommon for the members of one family to practice different religions.
While Muslims comprise less than thirty per cent of the population of the Republic of Benin, Islam is the predominant religion in the north of the country. It was brought by the Hausa people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, from the north. Traditionally, Islam coexists peacefully with other belief systems. Many nominal Muslims practice Vodoun and other traditional African beliefs. They also do not mind drinking beer in a small open air restaurant just outside the local mosque.
Moneychangers, tailors, fortune tellers, you meet them in the streets of many towns and villages in West Africa. However, a professional photographer is a rarity. This charming elderly man sits in front of his former photo studio close to Malanville market. He ran a successful business in the past but the good times are over. Nowadays everyone has a camera in a mobile phone. This does not prevent him from delighting passers-by with his smile, though.
Two funny if not a bit sassy boys accompany me at the local market. We become friends in a jiffy. They are keen to check every feature of my camera and laugh a lot as they try to learn Polish tongue twisters. Other children follow us the whole afternoon. In the evening we set up a cinema using my mobile beamer (that I usually travel with) and the white wall of a mosque which serves a a screen. Watching old cartoons under the African sky - priceless.
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