Not the Voodoo Festival

Benin and I got off on the wrong foot. It wasn’t really Benin’s fault.

The Nigerian border crossing at Seme was undoubtedly the most wearing so far. It was absolute mayhem with 80% humidity and added motorbikes (as the okadas banned in Lagos were back in full force). Police directed us through the milling hordes of vehicles and people to the first boom where blokes were shouting at us before we’d even got there. An official in a sandy uniform and sunhat came and beckoned two gentlemen, who introduced themselves as T.T. Camara and George, to escort us through.

I went with them and explained to the first gendarme we’d spent all our remaining Naira at the supermarket getting food for our children so there was none left; the climate change project story had him so bemused, we were eventually moved along. At the next stop, a super friendly woman outside Immigration wrote down our Facebook page after taking our passport details; inside I was given long forms to fill in by a deputy as various young men in transit were shouted at, bullied and humiliated by the senior official for N500 notes.

I nipped back to the truck to fill in the usual reams of pointless detail while scoffing a quick fried plantain to keep my strength up. TT was very impressed by our living arrangements and by Zola – he’d never heard of adoption and first thought our son was a miraculous conception – and by Ruby, whom he offered to marry. This is becoming a slightly worrying pattern, especially as when I point out she’s only 12, it rarely seems to put suitors off.

Back in Immigration, I sat quietly with folded hands, casually looking outside and purposefully not seeing the money changing hands within, showing no hurry and bracing myself for the biggest asshole so far. The senior official was an older geezer in a magnificent Nigerian suit and hat, calling all the shots while looking hawkishly out from behind small round glasses. It seems he was checking me out as shrewdly as I’d checked him, as 15 minutes later, he chose not to engage, just signalled his deputy to wave me through to the inner sanctum for stamps.

After customs had filled in the carnet, George escorted me through a line of small white-painted wooden stalls with big titles and one official in each: Drug and Alcohol Enforcement Agency, Anti-Bomb Squad, Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking, Agency for Foods, Drugs Administration and Control… We ran the gamut, with the Big Green Truck idling along behind us, fielding hints at each. At the last one, the lady asked me outright for “something”, so I sent for Sampson to do some magic, which luckily she loved.

The next boom was the border itself, there was another grumpy guy wanting cash. George began to get impatient and irate with this guy and his gang of hangers-on, and too late I began to realise I’d be better off without him. We had time with which to indulge the gatekeepers, even if we didn’t have money. I called Sampson from the truck to do a quick trick as the chat slipped into French. Suddenly it became apparent that on the Beninois side of the boom, this hard bunch of blokes were half-scared and suspecting Sampson of some sort of black magic – their unease was palpable.

He laughed it off with some macho backslapping and we quickly moved on. The Benin police representative was installed in a wooden booth with the window at the height of Zola’s head, so I had to stoop to chat, fumbling in my rusty French after a month of English in Nigeria. This day just seemed to be getting more farcical. Sampson ended up having to do his trick with only his hands inside the booth!

After customs there was a very meticulous policeman in Rayban aviators checking vehicles at the final boom: he leafed through our carnet, truck papers and international drivers licences, pocketing 300N from every car that passed in the meantime. There was no attempt to hide it. Sampson had to charm him too.

There were about 8 stations in all on the Nigerian side, and 5 on the Benin side, so this took several hours, all very hot and hectic with constant hassle and sweat running down the backs of my legs under my skirt. Border crossing days are always tiring, but this was definitely the most taxing yet. I thought I could relax at last, but now impatient George was putting pressure on “See, you didn’t pay a thing, so give me 200 euros….”

I got him and TT in the truck, gave them a cold drink of water and pleasantly reiterated “We Have No Money until we get to a bank. We spent our last Naira at the supermarket, and we don’t have euros, I’m sorry.” Instead, I took their photo and promised to give them a credit – here it is:

George a.k.a. Iboroma Alambo and T.T. Camara

George a.k.a. Iboroma Alambo and T.T. Camara with their crocodile smiles

In the end, George retired quite gracefully, but I was shattered – we had got up 4.30 that morning to beat the Lagos traffic. I persuaded Sampson to drive straight out of crazy Kraké, and find somewhere calmer to eat lunch. Within 5 minutes Big Reg had found a beach, at the end of the road past a refinery, but beautiful and b-r-e-e-z-y. My brain felt fried and it was complete heaven to get in the sea and jump about in some warm waves.

Blissful Benin beach

Blissful Benin beach

We were soon joined by a group of tentatively friendly young locals, and then a French refinery worker wandered over. He warned us there were lots of shady characters involved in smuggling and trafficking up and down the beach at night around the dodgy border area. But Kraké had a sniff of surf so Sampson was keen to stay.

Sampson, Zola and local cows checking the swell

Sampson, Zola and local cows checking the swell

After supper, we settled down to watch a James Cagney movie The Roaring Twenties, aptly about Prohibition smuggling, but I was so tired, we only saw half of it before going early to bed. I was convinced I’d be out for 10 hours straight, but at 1.30am heard Sampson say loudly “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” to a head that had appeared above him in the hatch. I leapt up, ripping my mosquito net, to turn on outside lights. The intruder was already gone, without anything, but so was our peace of mind. We slept little after that. It was ironic, that we stayed a whole month in Nigeria without a single incident, and the first night out of that country, we got hassle.

In the middle of border-crossing chaos, my Mom had phoned to say that She-who-shall-remain-nameless at the W’rite Shoppe in Longbeach Mall, Cape Town had lost my book order AGAIN, and as a result there was absolutely no way of getting Ruby’s school books to her by the beginning of term. We were devastated. We’d bought all of Zola’s books with us, but Ruby’s Grade 7 ones were new to the CAPS curriculum and not yet available before we left. She’d have to wait at least 6 weeks for them now. The only silver lining to this grim cloud was that my Mom mentioned she might have no option but to bring them to us herself…

Sampson and son did at least manage a surf in the morning, and all four of us had a lovely swim, though the waves came in scary sets, and you had to time your run out in between them, laughing. I’m very grateful for the Fish Hoek Nippers lifesaving training the kids did last year; it’s very reassuring to see them so confident in the sea.

That's Ruby's head on the left

That’s Ruby’s head on the left – good job she’s a much stronger swimmer than me – and Sampson on wave right

More by luck than design, we crossed the border on 8th January, just two days before Benin’s annual Vodoun Festival, which obviously could not be missed. ‘Vodoun’ I assumed was a translation of ‘Voodoo’, but have since concluded is something entirely different. Vodoun is the traditional, pre-colonial, pre-Christian religion of this region, practiced throughout West Africa but strongest in Benin. Voodoo is some perverted warped sensationalised Western interpretation of it. They have very little in common.

If we wanted to see the Festival, we had to dash through the capital, Cotonou to make it to Ouidah on time. On very slight acquaintance, we were quite impressed: Cotonou had a calm vibe and, like Yaoundé, was a pleasure to drive through, if not quite so pretty.

Cotonou bike lanes

Cotonou calm and order: bike lanes!

Benin was the first time we saw a) crash helmets, b) taxi motorbikers in uniform – a yellow T-shirt – and c) dedicated (and sacrosanct) motorbike lanes. This seemed almost miraculous after what we’d just driven through. The roads were better, and there were inspirational handwritten bible quotes on traffic poles alongside the ‘Don’t drop litter’ and ‘Don’t pee in public’ picture signs.

My list of ‘Mad things being transported on a single motorbike’ continued to expand: a lorry wheel, an aluminium frame for a double door, a huge pile of raffia baskets, an impossible amount of green plantains… The prize for ‘Craziest shop being carried on head’ this month went to the woman at the border with a metal bowl full of about 500 rolled pairs of multi-coloured socks. Who wears socks in this heat?

Our first Beninois policeman was a prize prat who waved us over and then tried to insinuate we were in the wrong lane, blocking cyclists and thus owing a fine. Sampson was threatening to lose his cool, but I remained cheerfully ignorant, pretended my French was worse than it was – thus rendering his bullying impotent – and at the right moment, firmly showed him the letter of introduction explaining we were on our way to the embassy. He immediately dropped the whole thing. After that we encountered only very friendly police and were waved through most roadblocks.

As we had another 40km to reach Ouidah before dark, we sadly missed visiting the Fondation Zinsou gallery or getting a proper feel for the capital. I thought we’d be coming back to submit the Ghanaian visa forms we picked up on our way through, but the subsequent road was so awful, Sampson preferred to submit our applications in Togo.

After battling several hours through dirt and around roadworks, at sunset we arrived somewhat exhausted in the small town of Ouidah, renowned as a historical slave port, and parked at the Point of No Return. At the gate, we met Abdul Djibo (a.k.a. artist Kader Amporio), a spectacularly cheek-boned young man with a Muslim Nigerian father, a Christian Niger mother, a group of itinerant artist friends and an exquisite collar of Ghanaian slave beads around his neck. He offered to be our guide for the Vodoun ceremony the next day.

Abdul and his cheekbones

Kader Amporio and his cheekbones

a.k.a. Abdul our generous guide

a.k.a. Abdul our generous guide

We walked through the grand portal, whose bas-relief sculpting reminded me a little of Soviet-era artwork on the Moscow subway. This giant memorial was somehow too huge and distant to make an impact. For me, an installation of recycled sculptures on the beach, life-size chained figures with hollow tin eyes heading towards the sea, was far more harrowing.

La Porte de Non Retour

La Porte de Non Retour

Detail hard to see without close-up camera

Detail hard to see without camera close-up

Bit difficult to get to grips with

Bit difficult to get to grips with

Permit me to insert a few facts not displayed at the site that should be (gathered from the only cursory perusal of Wikipedia that frustratingly patchy connection in Benin would allow):

1. The estimated number of people who were sold into slavery from West Africa is 12.5 million. That’s more than twice the number of people killed in the Holocaust, a figure far more familiar to us. It doesn’t count those killed in raids to capture slaves, or the ones who died on the forced marches to the coast. Around 2 million died chained in the hell holds on the ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic. These 12 million people were mostly sold to labour in sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco and cocoa plantations, and gold and silver mines.

Chained 1

Chained 1

2. The Atlantic slave traders, by trade volume were: the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Americans. By the late 17th century, one out of every four ships that left Liverpool harbour was a slave ship.Much of the wealth on which the city of Manchester was built in the late 18th and for much of the 19th century, was based on the processing of slave-picked cotton. Birmingham supplied guns to be traded for slaves. It has been estimated that the profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations created up to one in twenty of every pound circulating in the British economy in the second half of the 18th century.

Chained 2

Chained 2

3. The majority of African captives were exported from the coast of West Africa, some 3000 miles between what is now Senegal and Angola, and mostly from the modern Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon. In areas where slavery was not practiced, e.g. amongst the Xhosa, Europeans were unable to trade for slaves. The total number of Africans taken from the East Coast and enslaved in the Arab world is estimated to be somewhere between 9.4 and 14 million. The figures are imprecise due to the absence of written records. The forced removal of up to 25 million people from the continent had a major effect on the population; it is estimated that between 1500-1900, the population of Africa, alone amongst all the continents of the world, remained stagnant or declined.

Chained 4

Chained 3 and 1/2

Whingers on radio talk shows often wonder why Africa is so underdeveloped compared to the rest of the world. If a substantial percentage of your strongest youth were abducted on a regular basis over four centuries, with the remainder living in constant fear of it, would you be asking? The bottom line is not that Africa is a weak competitor lagging behind in the development race, but that Europe stole vast amounts of its human and natural resources and gained an enormous unfair advantage: the slave-based capital that funded the Industrial Revolution. #MakingPovertyHistory

Explaining this to Zola was one of the hardest things I've done on this trip

Explaining to Zola how this could happen was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do on this trip

As we walked through the memorial site, we found ourselves surrounded by tourists – it was the first time we had seen any since Kribi in Cameroun, and suddenly there were pale people with cameras everywhere you looked. I absolutely hated it. It took me a while to work out exactly why I was feeling so affronted by their presence, and so uncomfortable myself.

Slaves and tourists

Tourists amongst the chained.

Was it because I blamed them and didn’t think they looked sorry enough? Was it because I felt that somehow ‘slave tourism’ was exploiting the locals all over again? Was it just because we were no longer ‘special’, the only travellers around? I flatter myself not the latter. It was more because I felt I was no longer regarded as an individual, but lumped into a category: ignorant tourist. Fair game to be sold to, to be hounded, to be chatted up – not to be befriended. It’s quite an effective way to learn to empathise, on a very minor scale, with how it feels to deal with racism on a daily basis: because you have to fight assumptions every step of the day.

Watch your ankles

Watch your ankles Ruby

I started describing myself as “traveller not tourist” to try and explain why I didn’t have dollars or euros to burn on fripperies, and because it felt so horrible to be classed alongside them as a sightseer. But am I really anything else? Is there such a category as culturewallower?

Chained 5

Chained 4

If you’re sensing a tension between my British/European-born self and my South/African identity, and a confusing tendency to flip between them, don’t worry, you’re not the only one.

Chained 6

Chained 5

We met some German volunteers from Togo, Valerie and Jenny, who shared our sentiments, also feeling awkward to be grouped with the gawkers. They amazed me with their wise words, not least because they were speaking French to each other and fluent English with us!


Beautiful inside and out youngsters Valerie, Jenny and their Togolese friend Gilles

The next day, we were up early, eager not to miss any of the action. All the clay sculpture and trinket shops were open and already badgering the tourists, but Abdul told us the Chief had been delayed and the ceremony due to start at 8am had been delayed till 10.

I watched a woman cut a fresh pineapple, effortlessly peeling it in one curl like it was an apple, with a knife the size of her forearm, before slicing it for us to eat. She was more of a true artist than many of the art sellers I saw that day. Later I saw her through the crowds, carrying a platter on her head with perhaps 25 pineapples piled on top of it; she was 7 months’ pregnant. Hard ways to earn a living.

I took advantage of the delay to have another shower but I was sweating before I could dry myself off. It was ridiculously hot. But I’m glad we all dressed respectfully nonetheless in long trousers and skirts, unlike many other whities in their shorts and spaghetti straps. I was wearing a traditional shoeshoe (pronounced shwe-shwe) skirt with Madiba’s smiling face on made from material I bought in Alice, the town in the Eastern Cape that Zola’s ancestors are from. It seemed appropriate.

As we waited on the beach, Abdul told us the origins of the festival. The 10th of January was chosen for the annual celebration of the Vodoun religion in 1921, when the then Chief made the sacrifice by parting the sea, going in with a black sheep and coming out with a white one. He did this for three years, but his son was not powerful enough so he had to enter on a tortoise. (“A tortoise?” I checked I’d understood his French, “Not a turtle?” Abdul shook his head “No, a tortoise”.) The next Chief was even less powerful, so the tortoise refused to go in. Apparently, that same tortoise now lives in the Chief’s house, undisturbed.

At this point the Chief himself arrived with an entourage combining military escort and singing women, with police beating back the tourist paparazzi. Those wearing a municipal headscarf had paid 15000 CFA (R300) for rights to bear camera or 20000 CFA for video. Hating the thought of being identified with this group of culture vulture voyeurs, I moved quickly away and sat in the background to watch developments.

All morning, busloads of communities of the Vodoun religion had been arriving from all over the country to gather to pay their respects to the high Chief, hear his benediction and pronouncements for the year and to celebrate their faith. Several thousand chairs had been laid out, five rows deep around a large square with a small stage in the middle. A big crackly sound system was mounted under the Point of No Return archway, from where emanated a mostly unintelligible commentary on proceedings.

We sat in the shade with a lifesaving breeze off the sea watching the area fill up with groups in coordinated costumes radiating pride and grandeur. My favourites were the Pineapple People in front of us, so christened because of the fruity decoration on their matching outfits, who were loving their occasion and completely owning it, leading the singing and praising in our corner of the square. The ladies took it in turns to feature above the chorus, belting their hearts out, accompanied by small djembe and percussion.

While watching, we snacked on the most delicious plantain chips so far. Plantain chips are the best thing since coeliac-me stopped being able to eat sliced bread. When I get back to South Africa I’m going to start importing them and give biltong a run for its money. For lunch, the Sampsons ate fatty pork with pepper sauce served with a maize/tomato mix that looked like pink blancmange. I ate several bags of fish-oil flavoured popcorn, surprisingly tasty, and more fresh pineapple.

Sweat was running down my legs again, but thankfully, small ice-cold bags of water were available for pennies. Those 500ml plastic bags are in large part responsible for the slough of litter down the main streets of towns all along the West Coast. Children around us were sucking bags of bright cherry slush. Abdul bought me a bagful of the dried flowers of this bissap to make tea – I think it’s hibiscus. I love it: the taste and the colour are so cheering. It reminds me of rosehip syrup we were given as kids.

The arrival of the two sous Chefs, a pair of non-identical twins in cardinal-type hats and bedspread-heavy robes, was heralded with much excitement and extraordinary drumming: six extremely fit guys began to hit giant tamtam drums simultaneously with curved sticks, falling face first to the ground in between strokes and leaping immediately up again in one fluid motion, whirling all the while. It was spectacular.

Unfortunately we couldn’t properly see what was happening for the white people filming it. I don’t know why the Beninois don’t just pen them in a corner like unruly sheep. Can you imagine a busload of Japanese tourists barging into the middle of the ceremony just as the Archbishop of Canterbury was about to pronounce William and Kate man and wife? Not ruddy likely. Our tourists are supposed to know their place. Outside.

Europeans in Africa on the other hand are completely oblivious to their status as intruders: “I AM the owner of the gaze, I can stand anywhere, I don’t have to ask. It’s an honour to have me here.” Said the body language of the guy with a huge boep in a vest and shorts, legs wide, poking his telephoto lens in and ruining the integrity of the occasion. I wanted to slap him. Even worse than the downright rude ones were the trendy ones who deigned to join in “just like the locals”.

Vodoun dance could be described as twerking but with chasteness, modesty and a lot more elbow action. When a young French dude in a Johnny Depp hat decided to have a go with the Pineapple People, Abdul pointed out to us how the group had changed the song, dropping an instrument to reflect the intrusion of an outsider – he wouldn’t notice, but the cognoscenti would appreciate the acknowledgement. On the other hand, a white woman initiated into the religion, who was part of the group dancing and respecting the hierarchy of performances, was not being treated differently.

Watching from the shadows

We watched from the shadows

The rest of the Europeans were just irritatingly vague and drippy, drifting around completely unaware how their presence threatened to unbalance the nature of the event. “All these doughy white girls, they look like they were taken out of the oven too soon” reflected Sampson. “Not quite ready for life yet.” “You mean half baked?” I countered.

Initiates paying homage to the sous Chefs sitting near us

Achinan initiates paying homage to the sous Chefs sitting near us

What was truly wonderful was how the grandeur of the occasion remained intact despite them. The joy of participants triumphed; no interlopers could diminish it. The solid unity of the community was demonstrated in the certainty of all about their place in the proceedings; the display of dignity, of pride, of mutual respect without fawning, and the generosity of the Chiefs in the giving of their attention, their spirit and their cash gifts. No ‘ignorant savages’ here, and no Ozzie Osbourne-type antics. I defy anyone to tune in to the recording Sampson made of the Pineapple People (to be loaded as soon as bandwidth will allow) and copy the clapping of those complex polyrhythms within 5 minutes.

So why is it still being reported like this These are far more sensible and

If you Google ‘Voodoo Festival’ you can see hundreds of photos. My carnival self loved the interaction of clay figurines carried on the heads of participants. The kids’ favourite was the strongman who climbed a 40ft pole and demonstrated various poses, including ‘swimming’ horizontally while balancing on his lower abdomen. Abdul told us that the sons of the sous Chefs take it in turn each year to prove their strength.

The only photograph I really regret not taking was of the self-appointed princess in front of us. A sumptuously voluptuous woman of around 30, she was wearing a magical skyblue, mauve and silver thread wrap and plastic diamante tiara around her elaborately coiled hair, with two dolls tucked in her breast. Abdul told me these signified her dead twins, and she would carry them with her everywhere. Unlike Mary Slessor’s experience in Calabar, twins are so revered in Beninois culture, their mothers are considered highly blessed.

The high Chief under his Dahomeyan appliqué parasol

After giving his annual blessing, the high Chief parades under his Dahomeyan appliqué parasol…

in this style

decorated in this style

Afterwards we went with Abdul to see his stall, and admire the sculptures of sacred spirits, covered in white or blue powder symbolizing a blessing or purity. The bloke next door turned out to be the artist who had created the awesome figures on the beach. I was blessed to find John Adido of Abomey. He told me the work was not commissioned, he just did it because he thought it should be done. I wished he and my eMzantsi sister Yandiswa could have a conversation; if future funding applications are successful, one day they will.

Recycled artist John Adido and his crocodile bag

Recycled artist John Adido and his crocodile bag

The next day, when we stopped to show Abdul and John the truck before leaving, I met Djamila, a stallholder, who so enjoyed our chat she spontaneously gave me a necklace. I was so touched she’d seen me as a friend, not a tourist, I gave her one back!

We drove slowly up the Route des Esclaves, the 4km road captured slaves had to walk down to the sea. I took pics of a dozen statues representing different totems and after some searching, found the site of the Tree of Forgetfulness.

Route des Esclaves 1

Route des Esclaves 1

Route des Esclaves 2

Route des Esclaves 2

Route des Esclaves 3

Route des Esclaves 3

The truck in front of the Tree of Forgetfulness

The truck in front of the Tree of Forgetfulness

Here yoked men were made to circle nine times, and women seven times, in order to forget the life and the families they were leaving behind. Every time I recall this, it makes me feel sick. That people once thought other people could be disorientated like cattle, and forget whom they were and where they were coming from, just like that. The raw facts of this place should also be better marked.

Chained 7

Chained 6

4. It is now thought that there were rebellions on at least 20 percent of all slave ships crossing the Atlantic.

Rebels were killed and their bodies thrown overboard.

“Africa’s economic and social development before 1500 may arguably have been ahead of Europe’s. It was gold from the great empires of West Africa, Ghana, Mali and Songhay that provided the means for the economic take-off of Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries and aroused the interest of Europeans in western Africa. In the 14th century, the West African empire of Mali was larger than Western Europe and reputed to be one of the richest and most powerful states in the world.” Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade by Dr Hakim Adi

Chained 3

Chained 7

5. The unequal relationship that was gradually created as a consequence of the enslavement of Africans was justified by the ideology of racism – the notion that Africans were naturally inferior to Europeans.

How many more millions are still being oppressed by the consequences of slavery? “Figures are imprecise due to the absence of written records.”

Chained figures from afar

Chained figures from afar

We sat in the truck at the top of the Route and wondered whether to stay or go. We wanted to move on, but were too tired after our rather hectic last week in Nigeria, and disturbed nights since, so decided to stick around for a few days and rest. I’m so glad we did, as we gave ourselves a chance to get to know Ouidah ‘out of season’.

Sampson and I had decided to keep going to markets together whenever possible, to seize precious ‘us’ time in the day when we could. So we left the kids happily playing in the truck and bought tasty fresh short fat baguettes and lettuce for lunch. We were sad to find potatoes were still too expensive for us.

We picnicked outside the Ouidah Museum, before wandering into the old fort building to see an unexpectedly fabulous display of pictures by French photographer Pierre Verger 1902-1996. He travelled to Brazil and fell in love with the city of Salvador (as I did), was initiated into the religious rites of Candomlé and devotedly documented the similarities between Bahia and Benin from the late 1940s to 1970s. The parallels he captured were astounding: the reverence for twins, facial decorations, three sacred drums, men in swirling skirts, identical shapes of sacred objects, the portrayal of the horse masquerade and the spirit of the dead called Egun by the Brazilians, Egungun by the Beninois, and the worship of Yemanja goddess of the sea…

I wish I could have met this sensitive man, known as Le Messager. If you’re wondering what to buy me for Christmas, track down his 1954 book, reissued in 1995: ‘Dieux d’Afrique’.

After several hours spent missioning to get an MTN connection, we were too tired to cook, so Sampson bought cheap-cheap street food: chicken pepper soup and paté noir yam and soft pap maïs. I am amazed how much chilli the kids are able to eat with relish these days.

Beninois street food

Beninois street food

After we’d tucked them into bed, we went for a half hour wander around the 5th International Agogo Dance Festival, a free outdoor event with very good lighting and backdrop, featuring an impressive array of dance styles, from traditional to contemporary and even ballet. As we drove back towards the beach, we saw an outdoor cinema screening some Japanese masterpiece with French subtitles part of the Quintessence International Film Festival. Ouidah is quite the cultural centre in January.

On Sunday I was looking forward to a lie-in. But around 6.30am my dreams were interrupted by a strident man’s voice counting seconds. I tried to ignore it, but he kept repeating over and over again. In the end I had to get up and have a look. We’d parked the truck on a concrete slab jutting into the beach where, it seems, a weekly keep-fit group park their bikes and do their exercises. There was a circle of grimacing tubby people holding chair pose right outside our open door.

They have to do it early because it’s so bloody hot. The kids were brave enough to go swimming, although ‘swim’ is hardly the word: the waves were far too huge and dumping to go in, so they just jumped amongst the crashing shallows, which were foaming like a jacuzzi. I had to cook lunch with the fan hanging from a cup hook in front of me. The strong breeze off the sea in the afternoon saved us; Sampson and I lay dozing on the bed, listening to the kids playing James Spy and Princess Sophie, now engaged. I wish we’d recorded their two-hour game.

The Lego adventurers

The Lego adventurers with the limo

It was lovely to see Ouidah coming out in the cool of the early evening to play along the beach: families with young children in their best outfits, lovers dawdling. That night we watched ‘The Producers’ on the laptop cinema, remembering my Dad laughing fit to bust at ‘Springtime for Hitler’. I was feeling peaceful, loving the closeness of us four today, and looking forward to a decent sleep at long last.

About 1am, I was woken by thumping music and thought the bar next door had reopened. Blearily I turned over and tried to drop back off, but a couple of minutes later I heard two guys next to the truck having a discussion that ended with “I know, let’s shine the car lights on it”. Sampson woke up swearing as the little car turned the full force of its stereo system and headlights directly on us.

When one of the blokes came to the open door to chat through the mosquito net, I said “On dort (we’re sleeping)” very firmly and ignored him. The music was turned off and the two couples lay canoodling on the beach. I’d just dropped off again when the thin bloke came back to ask for water. “Non, on dort!” I said “Laissez-nous tranquilles”.

That’s when they put the hazard lights and the banging techno on again, the four of them dancing defiantly next to the truck. Sampson was FURIOUS. I wasn’t too chuffed myself, but as he was struggling into his shorts, I went out quickly in just a wrap and said “There are children in here!” Before that could register, my husband burst forth, shining a torch in their faces saying, in English, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” (again). The chubby feller with short dreads seized on this; he was obviously well-educated and spoilt, very early 20s with a brand new car: “Don’t come with fuck, this is Benin…”

I started to say, in French, “Look we’re from South Africa, we’ve crossed 8 countries and not yet met anyone as selfish as you” but I only got as far as “South Africa”. “AH…” says Chubby, “This is Benin, not South Africa. The beach belongs to everybody” and I replied, “Yes, and the beach stretches all the way down there and up there, why are you dancing on top of us?” I appealed to his female companions “There are children trying to sleep in there, you know this isn’t polite” before realising they were too pissed to process it. But Chubby was still banging on: “This is not South Africa, this is not South Africa”. In his drunken dumb-ass state there was only one way to get through to him and reluctantly I turned to Sampson, still wearing a threatening-to-deck-him expression: “Go and get Zola”.

Chubby continued ranting for another minute but when Sampson appeared holding our sleepy son by the hand, he stopped dead in his tracks, tirade over. Yes. Don’t make assumptions about us, and we’ll try not to make assumptions about you.

Drafted around Jan 15th

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3 Responses to Not the Voodoo Festival

  1. hey mark long time no here. i miss your family’s replay it.

  2. Pingback: WE LOVE DAKAR! Part 1: On Est Ensemble | Africa Clockwise

  3. Pingback: Ripped Off in Rosso | Africa Clockwise

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