Cotonou, Benin Report of what it's like to live there - 12/29/11

Personal Experiences from Cotonou, Benin

Cotonou, Benin 12/29/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Previous posts: Tirana, Bucharest, and Dushanbe.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Atlanta - Delta/Air France via Paris, 20 - 24 hours. Air France has flights to/from Cotonou three or four times a week depending on the season and the mood of AF. Six hours to/from Paris. The AF flight departs Cotonou at 23:30 and arrives in Paris at 06:00. Coming to Cotonou, the flight departs Paris at 13:30 and arrives in Cotonou about 20:00. Brussels Air has a similar schedule on different days. Those collecting SkyTeam frequent flyer miles use the Delta/AF connection through Paris; those collecting Star Alliance miles fly United/Brussels Air through Brussels. For emergency departures from post there is a daily, nonstop Delta flight out of Lagos to Atlanta. This connection is very expensive and the Cotonou - Lagos flight is sketchy. The transfer in Lagos can be an unpleasant experience and checked luggage must be claimed and rechecked in Lagos.

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3. How long have you lived here?

18 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most of the expats live in the Haie Vive neighborhood or in one of the nearby residential beach developments. I live in Haie Vive and prefer it for the walking proximity to shopping, restaurants, and Livingstone, the expat watering hole. All residential construction in Benin is poured concrete and tile floors in general. I can only speak for U.S. Embassy housing in particular. Embassy houses tend to be quite large and ours has almost adequate closet space (from an American prospective). The kitchens and bathrooms can be oddly laid out afterthoughts in the older homes but are much nicer in the newer beach developments. There’s no central ventilation in houses. Most every room will have a “split-pack” AC unit. The commute from Haie Vive to the U.S. Embassy is five to ten minutes depending on traffic. You don’t want to live “over the bridge” (actually, two bridges) on the east side of Cotonou. The two bridges bottleneck the Cotonou commuting traffic and the main highway from Lagos. That commute is a hours-long nightmare that you want no part of. Traffic in the downtown area really isn't too bad and mainly consists of motor scooters, the primary means of transportation for most Beninese.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Expensive. Everything is imported, mostly from France, so most all of the brands are French. The U.S. Embassy has a consumables allowance. Take advantage of it.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Some thick Astroturf matts to help keep the sand out of the house.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Livingstone is the expat hangout. It has decent pizza, so-so burgers, good brochette entrées, and a two-for-one happy hour on Saturday. On Saturday night, that’s where you’ll find most of the expats. It's reasonably priced. A South African fast food chain, Steers, just opened near the airport. They seem to have not quite gotten their act together, but we have high hopes. There are good Indian, French, Thai, and Lebanese restaurants. There’s even a sushi place and nobody has as of yet died after eating there. While the non-Beninese restaurants are expensive by local standards I think that most of the expats consider them reasonable.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Benin would be a tough place for someone with special dietary needs or restrictions.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes are everywhere and flies can be annoying outside. Cotonou is a malaria post and you’ll either take malaria prophylaxis or you’ll get malaria. You may get malaria anyway. You’ll come to think of N,n-Diethyl Meta Toluamide* “DEET” as a fragrance. Most people have a chronic ant problem in the kitchen but few cockroaches. *Active ingredient in insect repellant.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

I use the diplomatic pouch.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap and plentiful. I pay on the high end of the domestic help salary scale just so I can sleep at night, $180USD/month for four and a half days a week. Our housekeeper works from about 9:00 a.m. until about 6:00 p.m., and until about 3:30 on Friday. Most domestics are expected to work 12 hours M-F and a half day on Saturday, but I think that’s excessive by any measure. With the level of dust and pollution in Cotonou, a full-time housekeeper is an absolute necessity for keeping your house clean. It’s impossible to get a housekeeper to take a vacation (it would take me too long to go into all the whys, so just trust me on this), so it is customary to pay an extra month’s salary in December. There’s also local social security tax that we pay. If you have kids and both work, you’re going to need a nanny and a housekeeper. Some people have tried to have one domestic do double duty, but it never works. There’s just too much cleaning to be done.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are a few commercial gyms and the U.S. Embassy has a decently equipped workout room.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I cash checks at the embassy. I'm told that the ATM machines at the better hotels are ok. Benin is a cash economy. Credit cards are accepted at a few of the nicer hotels and at Erevan, the one and only big box store in Benin.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I understand that there’s an English-language Protestant service, but I’ve never been.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

I get the U.S. Armed Forces Network (AFN) and I have the only embassy house that has the big dish required to get all 10 AFN channels. Most people get the South African DSTV satellite package. No English language publications are available.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You're going to need at least a little French.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

No accommodation is made for persons with disabilities and the streets and sidewalks are a challenge even for the young and spry.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Local transportation is an issue. There are very few taxies and none of them are radio dispatched. The only place to get a taxi is at the airport or at one of the larger hotels. The locals rely on the motor scooter taxis called “zemidjians.” Zemidjians can be identified by the drivers yellow tunic with a registration number stenciled on the back. U.S. Embassy employees are not allowed to use zemidjians. The drivers are crazy and aggressive even when sober. You really need a car here.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Most people at post have a compact, Japanese 4WD SUV like a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. The roads are mostly awful and get flooded out in the rainy season. I don't think that there are any restrictions as to cars that can be imported. Getting parts for any car can be a problem.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

While I wouldn’t go as far as calling it “high-speed,” ADSL Internet service is available. It’s ok for e-mail, online shopping, FB chat, and my Vonage phone. Skype with video gets iffy, and I don’t have much luck with streaming video. Don’t expect to download movies or use Slingbox. We pay about US$180/month. Yep, it ain’t cheep. Warning! Most U.S. based e-commerce sites don’t like West-African ISPs popping up and many will block the local ISP. Remember, we’re right next door to Nigeria and many Nigerian Internet scammers have moved here. I use a VPN appliance which gives me a SSL connection to an ISP in the States.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

The Embassy issues cell phones to employees. Otherwise, get an unlocked, quad-band, GSM mobile phone and prepaid SIM card from MTN or MOOV. The SIM card will cost about $20 USD up front and the refill minutes cards can be purchased from vendors who are never more than 15 feet from you at any time. The mobile service is good in town and fair in the countryside. Mobile calls are cheap and mobile phone calls to the States run about 12 cents a minute. Smart phone data plans are also available from the major carriers.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No, all that’s needed is a health certificate and rabies vaccination certificate. If your pet is small enough to be carried aboard I would recommend doing so. Airline baggage gets very rough handling here, and the Beninese don’t share or understand the whole attachment to our pets thing.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There is a vet here that the expats seem to like. The vet comes to your house. I wouldn’t recommend bringing an aging pet or one with an ongoing health issue. There are no kennels that I know of. The expats either get their household staff to provide pet care while away, or get a Peace Corps Volunteer to housesit. One last word on pets, and this comes as a strong admonishment from the embassy local staff, NEVER LET PETS OUT OF THE HOUSE OFF A LEASH, ESPECIALLY CATS. I’m told they taste a lot like chicken.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Mostly no, and certainly not without French. The U.S. makes an effort to find a job for all the family members who want to work.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business dress at work. Conservitive dress in public.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

So long as you’re not stupid, Benin is one of the safest places in Africa. Much of what crime there is comes out of Nigeria. There was a Togolese carjacking crew active when I got here but the Gendarmes tracked them into the bush and killed them. There hasn’t been a problem with carjacking since. There was a brief, late night pedestrian robbery problem in the international residential area but a mob of the residential guards chased two of the robbers down, beat one to death, and sent the other to the hospital in bad shape. It’s been real quiet since then. There are incidences of petty crime but it’s avoidable so long as you’re vigilant. While Boko Haram terrorist activity is on the rise in neighboring Nigeria, and AQIM is on a kidnapping spree in neighboring Mali and Niger, all is quiet in Benin. I haven’t noticed any of the warning signs of radical Islam turning up in Benin. Benin is politically stable and just had peaceful elections that were judged to be free and fair by the international community.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Many. Medical care here is fair at best. The U.S. Embassy has a great doctor.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air quality depends on the time of year, direction of the wind, and amount of traffic on the street. Right now, the “Harmattans” (Saharan winds) are blowing and filling the sky with gray-brown dust that looks like a dirty overcast. Mix that with diesel and two-cycle effluents and Cotonou air gets a little on the toxic side.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot and wet or hot and dusty depending on the season. Even though Benin is 6 degrees north of the equator, November through March are the warmer months by a few degrees. While the daytime temperature rarely goes above the mid to high 90s(F), the humidity stays over 90%.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I don’t have kids, so anything I say about the schools is going to be anecdotal and second hand. There is the large French School which has competitive entrance and requires fluent French, and there is the British International School. Embassy officers have had kids in the French School in the past and were happy with the experience. Currently, there are only two school age kids at post and they go to the British International School. Their parents seem to be satisfied with the quality of the instruction and curriculum. I would not bring a non-French speaking teenager to Benin.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Probably limited if any, but please check with the schools on this.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

As far as I know there’s no commercial daycare available in Benin. Expats with preschoolers all have nannies and they all love their nannies.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Only through the schools as far as I know.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Probably about 1,000, mostly French.

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2. Morale among expats:

Good.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

We make our own fun.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

The Anglophone community is so small that the singles, couples, and families all mix and mingle. I’m not sure that one has any particular advantage over the other. We all make our own fun. Fluent French speakers are going to have a much larger social pool.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Beninese are socially and religiously conservative and LGBT issues are not openly discussed. However, and unlike neighboring Nigeria, nobody is trying to get anti-gay laws passed here in Benin. The Government of Benin is accrediting the same-sex partners of foreign diplomats. I don’t think that any of the gay or lesbian officers at the U.S. Embassy have experienced any hostility or discrimination.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Benin is about one third Catholic, one third Muslim, and one third Animist (native religion). There seems to be a very good level of religious tolerance. Gender-based violence is an issue in Benin but the government is taking serious steps to address this and to have law enforcement and the courts not brush this off as a “family matter. Women enjoy equal rights in Benin and I haven’t noticed any overt discrimination.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

I’ve gotten to make three, very extensive trips into the interior and very north of Benin on official business. If you get a chance to get out of the immediate area of Cotonou take advantage of it. Benin has some wonderful scenery but absolutely no tourist or transportation infrastructure beyond the capital and Ouidah. Getting out into the countryside takes some doing and, therefore, is usually limited to official trips.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

We do a good bit of home entertaining or meet in groups at restaurants. The beach in town is dodgy, polluted, and has dangerous surf. Most of the expats go to the beach about 12 Km west of Cotonou where it’s cleaner and the surf less dangerous. Many embassies and organizations lease beach huts in this area for their exclusive use. These huts are a pleasant place for a group to grill, swim and pass a pleasant weekend afternoon. Bab’s Dock, a day resort a few more kilometers down the beach road, is a restaurant and dock on an inland lagoon. Bab’s dock features swimming and various water toys for the kids. A drive of about an hour will get you to the beach hotel called Casa del Papa which has clean rooms, a nice pool, and a Putt-Putt course.

For history and culture there is Ouida, a town about an hour’s drive from Cotonou. Ouidah was a large slave trading center between the 15th and 19th centuries, and has an interesting museum in an old Portuguese fort. Ouidah was is also a center of traditional African religion that was exported to the new world as Voodoo. The Snake Village and Voodoo Center are a must see in Ouidah. Ganvié, the “Venice of Africa” is an interesting day trip from Cotonou. Ganvié is a city on stilts on the north side of Lac Nokoué. Getting to and around Ganvié is possible only be boat. The Marina Hotel has a poorly maintained executive golf course which is better than no golf at all. The course has a good teaching pro, but offers no equipment or supplies. You’ll need to have your own clubs and bring balls, tees, and gloves with you.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Lots of local crafts and woodworking.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Cotonou is a sleepy, dusty/damp (depending on the time of the year), malarial backwater. Not much goes on here. However, if you’ve got to be posted to West Africa this isn’t a bad place to be. If you need nightlife, the arts, and the hustle and bustle of an urban environment, this isn’t the place for you.

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11. Can you save money?

Depends.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Wool.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sun tan lotion.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?


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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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