(Note: Staff Sgt. Olufemi Owolabi, U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs, is blogging from Benin where he’s covering the Maritime Safety and Security Seminar hosted and facilitated by U.S. AFRICOM and the Africa Center. The seminar brings together nations of West and Central Africa to discuss maritime safety issues, including ways to combat piracy and illicit trafficking. Femi got to visit the fish market during a break on Monday. We’ll feature his coverage from the meeting tomorrow here on our blog.)
I was in Benin about 200 miles away from where I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, but I couldn’t go there because I needed a visa.
Instead, a trip to the Benin port of Cotonou made me feel like I was back home again.
The name “Cotonou” means “the mouth of the river of death” in the Fon language. At the beginning of the 19th century, Cotonou (then spelled Kotonou) was merely a small fishing village. According to the U.S. State Department, the economy is still based on the sea, with a modest fleet that provides fish and shrimp for local subsistence and export to Europe.
More than 2 million people live in the Cotonou region, with about 770,000 in the city itself. The official language of Benin is French. Other main languages spoken in Cotonou include Fon, Aja and Yoruba language.
Yoruba happens to be my native language, which made me very comfortable taking a trip to a local fish market. I was also able to talk to a tour guide, a motorcycle taxi driver who speaks broken English very well.
Broken English is another version of English language spoken among some African indigenes, especially in the west, and it’s a contraction of the English language. It literally means you can break the various parts of the English language into smaller chunks without losing its meaning.
We communicated in broken English, and he decided to take me to the market on his motorbike, which is not a typical motorcycle used in the United States. Here, motorbike (called “zim,” which is short for “take me quickly”) is also a mode of commercial transportation.
We decided to go specifically to a fish market, as seafood is a common delicacy for the inhabitants of Cotonou. We went to where the fish were being sold to retailers and wholesalers immediately as the fishermen came right off the boat. It was filled with thousands of people, just like I remembered: a typical market in this part of the world.
When we entered the gate of the market, the stench of dead fish filled the air. It became even more unbearable as we went further into the market. My tour guide, Anise, tried unsuccessfully to haggle the price of a basket of fish with at least five sellers who refused to beat their prices down to meet Anise’s demand.
Finally, Anise and a vendor agreed on a price. Despite the entire basket being sold for what was probably less than a dollar, what amazed me was the enthusiasm radiating from these sellers simply to win a customer. Every time Anise priced the fish and they felt the price was too low, they would leave the scene and, in a few minutes, they would reappear. They were always back to convince Anise to pay a little bit more so that they could close the sale. Anise was adamant every time. When he finally closed the deal with the last vendor, Anise, surprisingly, told the seller he had no money.
Anise explained to the fish seller that he would have to ask me (“his friend”) if he could borrow some money. He was referring to me as his friend. He turned to me and asked: “My guy, you get money for pocket?” he asked me in broken English.
I replied, “How much do you want to borrow?” He said he needed 1,000 CFRA (about $2). I dipped my hand into my pocket. I fumbled a little bit as if I was searching my pocket because I wanted to make sure I didn’t reveal the 10,000 CFRA (about $20) I had with me. I found the money and gave it to him. He paid the vendor, who said he had no change and had to go back into the crowd to see if other sellers might help him break the money. Other sellers, oftentimes, feel reluctant to lend money to one another because they might need it too whenever customers pay with larger bills.
Anise followed the seller everywhere he went looking for change. As Anise followed the fish seller, I watched the thronged market and wondered how people survived everyday doing this business. Two elderly women almost engaged in a fistfight over a customer, simply because the customer talked to one of them first, and they both agreed on the same price. Since their baskets of fish were a foot away from each other and there was no witness, the altercation was settled by the customer, who benevolently bought from both sellers to prevent “hell from breaking loose.”
On our way back to the hotel, Anise explained to me the reasons he chose his current job and to work in the area surrounding our hotel. For one thing, it attracts richer customers. Dignitaries in Benin and foreign customers, like the French and Americans, mostly frequent it. The area helps boost the income and overall standard of living for taxi and commercial bike riders.
It then became clearer to me that though, most times, our visits to the continent are official-business oriented, our visits also indirectly impact the local citizens. Anise was able to feed his family, who lives about an hour from the hotel, and a local fish salesman was also able to earn his wage. By the way, the 1000 CFRA that I gave Anise at the market was our already-agreed-upon cost of transportation to the market, and other places we went that day. I gave him another 1000 CFRA when we arrived at the hotel, and we both exchanged phone numbers. Anise left with a smile and said I could call him anytime I needed a ride.