Please give generously to Cancer Research : https://www.justgiving.com/Dan-Thompson11/
Date : 17th November, 2016
Time : 58’ 49”
Total distance run to date : 910 km
Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1458667789
Embassies in London tend to be clustered in areas such as South Kensington, Belgravia and Mayfair. In general, they’re big buildings in the most expensive parts of town. Benin’s embassy, on the other hand, is in a small office in a rundown business centre off the Edgware Rd just south of the North Circular.
It’s also different in that its logistically quite easy to get your visa (once you’ve got to the Embassy in the first place). You rock up, hand over a wad of cash and a relatively simple form, and leave 10 minutes later with your visa. Which compares favourably to the pointlessly complex forms and inconvenient drop off and pick up windows that often apply elsewhere. (I can live with paying the visa fee –as long as I think it’s actually going to the country in question – but visa paperwork drives me mad.)
While I’m waiting for my visa, I get chatting to the local Honorary Consul and remark that I haven’t met many people who’ve been to Benin. At which point he tells me that Benin has lot of UK visitors – partly because it’s the birthplace of Voodoo. Which is obviously pretty exciting.
In reading up about Benin and Voodoo, I’ve come across various different versions of the facts. Articles on the BBC website state that voodoo is the official religion of Benin – practiced by c 40% of the population. Religioustolerance.org puts the figure at 60%.Wikipedia suggests that about 17% of the population follow Vodun. Vodun being the original West African religion which was subsequently exported to the Caribbean and the Americas where it syncretized with Christianity to produce Voodoo.
Either way, Vodun isn’t the back magic, pins in dolls religion that is sometime associated with Voodoo. It centres around the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that range in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks. Adherents also emphasize ancestor worship and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living, each family of spirits having its own female priesthood. There are also rituals to make contact with spirits, gain their favour by offering them animal sacrifices and gifts, and then ask for their help.
I must admit there were times in Benin when I seemed to be suffering from bad voodoo. Though, as so often in life, there were silver linings to most of the clouds.
I landed late after my mad run in Cote d’Ivoire and got to my hotel after 11pm. After a long wait at check-in, I had a much needed shower and bite before retreating to bed greatly in need of some sleep. Which wasn’t to be as, not only were the hotel walls very thin, they actually seemed to contain some form of amplifier. Which allowed me to ‘enjoy’ every decibel of my neighbour’s continuous throat clearing, mucus expectorating cough.
On the plus side, I was still awake when dawn broke and got out onto the roads in good time for my run. Which, given that Benin can be very humid and hot (it frequently gets into the 40s at that time of year), was probably for the best. It was a blurryface start – I was so dozy that I initially failed to set my Garmin off meaning that I ran an extra kilometre. Not ideal on a day when I had to run a second 10 km that evening.
After 11 slow and sweaty kilometres, I made it back to the hotel and realised that I must have been pretty dehydrated – I seemed to be weeing Fanta…
Luckily the effigy I’d made of my hotel neighbour had worked its magic while I was out on my run. He was gone and I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep. Which put me in a better mood as I packed up and left the hotel. I was even thinking to myself about how much better flying was in Africa – with its relatively uncrowded airports and flights that were mostly on time – compared to Europe
It was therefore inevitable that I’d arrive at the airport to be told that my flight to Togo had been cancelled. “L’avion est en panne.”
We were told to get on the same flight the next day. An option that didn’t work for me as, by that time, I was due to have completed my stay in Togo and be on a flight to Ghana.
After an hour or so of getting nowhere with the authorities, I was starting to worry. Then the one helpful person in the airport suggested getting a car to Lome, the capital of Togo. As Benin and Togo are not only neighbours, but also both fairly small countries, this would only take about 3 hours. And he just happened to know someone – Ignace (pictured above) – who could drive me there.
I’m not normally a big fan of car journeys but this one was worth it as I saw far more of Benin than I would otherwise have done. From the roadside petrol stalls where they pour 5 litre bottle of gas into your car through a cloth – to remove the worst of the potentially engine busting gunk and impurities – to the village in the middle of the lake to the unrecognisable fish and animals being sold on the road side to the slightly sweaty border crossing where I had to pretend that my French wasn’t good enough to understand the suggestion that I make a ‘solidarity payment’, it was a memorable journey.
Ignace – thank you for the drive, for putting up with my execrable French and for the company. I can’t quite remember the lyrics of that reggae song but I know we laughed a lot!
Now for the info / data bit.
The Republic of Benin is a country in West Africa bordered by Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east, and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. A majority of the population live on its small southern coastline on the Bight of Benin in the northernmost tropical portion of the Atlantic Ocean. The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo, but the government is based in Cotonou, the country’s largest city and economic capital. Benin covers an area of 114,763 square kilometres and its population in 2015 was estimated to be approximately 10.88 million. Benin is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture, with substantial employment and income arising from subsistence farming.
The official language is French as a result of having been a French colony known as French Dahomey. In 1960, Dahomey gained full independence from France, and a tumultuous period ensued with many different governments including military coups and governments. A Marxist–Leninist state called the People’s Republic of Benin existed between 1975 and 1990. It was replaced by the current multi-party Republic of Benin in 1991.
Finally, here’s the World Bank data for Benin – with the year 2000 as a comparison. Amazing how much things can change – mostly for the better – in 15 years.
Population 10.88 million 2015 6.95 million 2000
GDP $8.29 billion 2015 $2.57 billion 2000
GDP Growth 5.4% 2014 6.3% 2001
GNI per capita $840 2015 $390 2000
% below poverty line 36.2 2015 37.2 2006
Life expectancy at birth 59.5 years 2014 55.2 years 2000
Primary school enrolment 125.6%* 2014 81.2% 2000
*Figure can be over 100% due to people over normal school age being at school