Cotonou, Benin Report of what it's like to live there - 05/21/13
Personal Experiences from Cotonou, Benin
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
First expat experience.
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?
Travel time is about six hours to Europe and another eight hours to DC. Connect through Paris (Air France/Delta) or Brussels (Air Brussels/United).
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. government employee.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The embassy still has a few houses in the Haie Vive neighborhood, which traditionally is where expats have lived. These houses tend to be smaller and older, with no (or very small) yards. However, they are in walking distance to many restaurants, clubs, grocery stores, etc. It seems the embassy is shifting its housing stock to other developments with bigger and nicer homes featuring large yards and sometimes swimming pools. However, these new developments feel like American suburbia and aren't walkable to anything. I don't think anyone in the embassy community has more than a 15-minute commute. A few people can walk to work. Commute times will get even shorter with the move to the NEC in 2015.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you eat like a local, you can eat very cheaply. If you want to eat like you would in the U.S., it will cost you. Decent chicken and beef are available at the nicer grocery stores, but more expensive than back home. Seafood at the local fish market is comparable to U.S. prices, maybe slightly cheaper. Fruits and veggies are, however, very affordable. The most delicious pineapple you will ever eat costs about 30 cents, for instance. Mangos and avocados are also great. You can get a few American brands if you are willing to pay ($20 for a box of Special K, for instance), but you can find French equivalents for much cheaper prices. Still, expect to spend more on groceries than you would back home unless you only eat local cuisine.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I wish I would have brought a lot more of my own furniture and decorative items. If I had known how much time I would be spending at home, I would have made more of an effort to make it more comfortable. Also, anything that would help with at-home entertaining.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are no American chains. There is one South African fast-food chain (Steers) which is nothing to write home about. There are a number of decent sit-down restaurants at DC prices ($10-$15 per meal). You can find very good Indian, Thai, Italian/pizza, seafood, and Lebanese cuisine. There is also one mediocre and expensive sushi restaurant, a few Chinese restaurants, a Russian restaurant, etc. The dining options, although they get a little tired after a while, are significantly better than I expected.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are everywhere. Bring bug spray, and take your malaria meds. Ants and lizards can also be pesky and turn up in your house often.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Through the embassy. Pouch takes 2-3 weeks. DPO is apparently coming soon, but it's not available yet.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Readily available and cheap; anywhere from about $120/month to $220/month for full-time work, depending on the service. Many expat families hire nannies, cooks, gardeners, housekeepers, drivers, etc.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy has a gym, and there are a few others around town that seem decent for about DC prices. As of recently there are Zumba classes.
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 try to get money at the embassy but have had no issues with local ATMs the several times I've used them. There are a few around town. I don't think I've ever used a credit card. There are maybe one or two places that might take them. This is really a cash economy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
None that I am aware of.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There are no English'language newspapers. You can get an English-language satellite package out of South Africa, with some American channels, for anywhere from about $20 to $150/month, depending on the package.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It would be very difficult to have an enjoyable time here with no (or limited) French, but some embassy spouses have managed. There are a few restaurants and stores where you can get by with English. However, even with decent language skills it's quite hard to integrate into local and expat circles made up of native French speakers.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
A lot. This is not a workable post for someone with physical disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Public transport is primarily motorcycle taxis, which are not forbidden but are highly discouraged by the embassy's security team. There are coach buses that travel outside of town. Peace Corps volunteers use both of these options, but embassy folks who have their own cars tend not to. They are cheap but not at all comfortable or safe.
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 expats drive SUVs with high clearance and 4-wheel drive. This is necessary if you plan on going out of town or to the beach, or driving to certain parts of town during the rainy season.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
This varies. Neighborhoods without landlines are stuck with satellite internet. I pay $200/month for a connection that is too slow to stream video and only sometimes is good enough to use Skype. Others in neighborhoods with landlines pay a little less for much higher-speed connections that allow video streaming.
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 and BlackBerries to all direct hires. Family members can sign up for local plans when they get here. It is possible to use an iPhone, for those who care about that.
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are a few local and European vets that are fine for routine issues. There is no emergency or extensive pet care, though.
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?
On the local economy, no. However, there are some jobs for family members at the embassy, and a few family members have been able to work at international schools or nonprofits. There might be opportunities if you're flexible and patient, but I wouldn't count on it.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Beninese tend to dress much more formally than American officers. A little nicer than business casual is passable for everyday work at the embassy; for meetings outside the embassy, suits are expected.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There have been a few armed robbery reports from expats during my time here, but they always happen very late at night. If you use good judgment, you don't have anything to worry about. Personally, I've never felt unsafe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Lots of health concerns. My family had one major medical issue that was misdiagnosed locally, and that only turned out okay because we insisted on a second opinion by an American doctor. We were prepared to leave post at our own expense, but luckily were able (ultimately) to get a medevac. For other medical issues I've found myself relying on Dr. Google because I don't have faith in the care and advice I get locally. The way it's been explained to me is that, culturally, doctors are trained to manage patients by not giving them complete information, telling them everything is alright even when it isn't, and just going ahead and treating problems without discussing the reality of the situation with the patient. From my American perspective, this is a troublesome approach, although admittedly there are some expats who don't mind it. Personally, I was very uncomfortable having young children at this post due to both this approach and the lack of emergency medical options (no ambulances, no emergency rooms, etc.).
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?
Air quality is fine. Expats run and bike outdoors.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's 80 degrees pretty much year-round, with two rainy seasons that cool things down slightly.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I don't have any personal experience, but parents of elementary-school-aged children seem happy with American-run QSI, which opened in 2012. I would not bring a middle-school or high-school student here unless they spoke fluent French, or unless another school option become available.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I can't say for sure, but I would guess very little. I would think long and hard before bringing a kid with special needs here.
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?
Nannies are affordable (about $200/month) and generally of good quality. There are a number of Francophone preschools that offer half-day programs for about the same price; I've heard mixed reviews.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Not that I know of.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small, and the Anglophone expat community is tiny.
2. Morale among expats:
Morale varies widely depending on individual situations. If you value big houses and short commutes, and if you are perfectly happy hanging out at home or going to the pool or the beach, you will likely be happy here. If you are looking for a lively city with things to do, this will likely be a challenging post for you. Also, as at any small post, morale changes significantly depending on who is here at any given time.
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?
Again, the expat scene tends to be largely Francophone, which is tricky if you don't have the French skills or don't necessarily want to use them during your time off work. Within the American community there is a lot of at-home entertaining. Younger people sometimes break into the Peace Corps social scene.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
The lack of things to do and the small expat community make this a challenging post for singles, although I've seen some have good experiences by breaking into the Peace Corps and/or the Francophone expat scenes. Same with couples. There are some clubs and music venues; there's a lot of entertaining at home. Families that value spending quality time together at home or at the beach seem happiest here, with the exception of those (especially with very young children) who worry about the lack of quality medical care. Like in any small post, things change significantly with each transfer season, but currently there are lots of babies, toddlers, and elementary-school kids in the embassy community, and I would guess that families would be much happier here than singles or couples. However, this isn't a perfect family post, as there are no public parks, playgrounds, or activities for kids. You really have to make your own fun.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I've known gay and lesbian expats who have had perfectly fine experiences here. I haven't heard of any outright discrimination, but at the same time there is no active gay and lesbian community to my knowledge, so it depends what you're looking for.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not that I've noticed.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The beach (although note that the undertow is strong, so swimming can be dangerous), seafood at beachfront restaurants, and Bab's Dock, a pleasant day resort on a lagoon accessible only by boat.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There's not a whole lot to do. There's no mall, no movie theatre, and no public parks. People spend a lot of time at the beach, although the undertow is dangerous, so most don't swim. A few local hotels have decent swimming pools. One hotel has tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course. People gather at restaurants and other people's homes. Some trek up north to the game park for a long weekend, but you need to adjust your expectations of an African safari - this is not Kenya. There are a few comfortable (but not luxurious) beach hotels within a two- or three-hour drive. Ouidah, about an hour away, has some sites and museums that tell of the region's slave trade history. You can take a boat to visit Ganvie, a village on stilts. As of recently, there is a direct flight to South Africa, so people are starting to go there for vacation---but it's expensive, around $1,000 roundtrip.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
I keep meaning to buy a nice souvenir to remember my time here, but I haven't found anything I really like yet, if that tells you anything. A lot of people buy large wooden sculptures of animals. Paintings, batiks, and other local handicrafts can be found at the artisan market in Cotonou. Many buy colorful local fabrics and hire tailors to make clothes.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you're looking for a safe place where you'll have a short commute and be able to spend a lot of time at home with your family, this could be a great option. It's politically stable. Crime isn't really an issue. The weather is comfortable. The workload is manageable. Locally-employed staff members are generally kind and competent.
11. Can you save money?
If you don't travel outside of the country too often beyond your R&R: absolutely.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I would not, mostly because of the medical situation, but also because of the isolation due to a lack of places to go around town and the difficulty/expense of travelling both locally or internationally. That being said, others I know would come back in a heartbeat. This could be a fine post, depending on your priorities.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Bring it all. You'll have plenty of space to store it in your house.
3. But don't forget your:
DVD collection (or books, or puzzles, or whatever else keeps you entertained at home).