Cotonou, Benin Report of what it's like to live there - 07/26/13

Personal Experiences from Cotonou, Benin

Cotonou, Benin 07/26/13

Background:

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

Yes.

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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?

Grand Rapids, Michigan. It generally takes at least 24 hours to fly home. Paris is the first stop; then Atlanta or Detroit; then Grand Rapids.

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3. How long have you lived here?

1 year and 9 months.

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

Trailing spouse of a Foreign Service Officer.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Commute time to the Embassy is fantastic--about a ten-minute drive at the longest. Housing here was great. More than enough space. We'll probably miss our home the most.

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

Erevan is the big supermarket here: you can buy clothes, toys, school/working supplies right along with your groceries. There's even a bookstore and clothing store inside. Kinda feels like you're stepping into America (add to the scene Katie Perry, Usher, and Rhianna blaring from the speakers). Many items here are costly (soda, alcohol, cheese, frozen meats). Other smaller stores carry similar items for much cheaper.

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

More soda, caffeine addict that I am. Soda here is expensive. Salsa/dips (not readily available here). Bring tortillas if you like Mexican food (you'll have to make your own, as Cotonou does not boast Mexican food).

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

We loved the Indian food here. You'll probably spend anywhere from US$10-$15 for a meal that is totally worth every penny. The pizza here is very good, if you like your pizza more on the thin side (price is about US$10-15 per pizza). The fish is fabulous.

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

LOTS of insect problems, from our experience: ants, mosquitoes, cockroaches. Thankfully, the locals sell mosquito "zappers". They reduce the annoyance of at least the mosquitoes.

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Daily Life:

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

Readily available and cheap. Make sure you sit down with help before hiring them, however. Set down expectations from the get-go. Explain the way you like things cleaned (and the way you DON'T like things cleaned). Go through even the elementary expectations (e.g. "I would like you to clean the toilets", "I don't want the clean rags mixed with the dirty rags", "Don't mix bleach with these products", etc.). We didn't and our housekeeper, though trustworthy, has proven to be a surfacey cleaner.

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

Yes. Two treadmills, two ellipticals, two bikes, weight machines, and many free weights are available at the Embassy gym. There's another gym at the edge of town that is small but very nice and clean. I believe you'll have to fork out US$80 a month for it though.

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

The ATM machine has malfunctioned more than once, which can be a pain when you need to get money out. I'd stick with the Embassy service just in case this is still a hassle in years to come.

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

Know as much French as you can before coming here. It will make your life much easier. Just being able to read billboards (95% of which are written in French) is one less headache. There are exceptions, though! Some people who have lived here didn't give a damn about learning French and got along with life just fine.

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Transportation:

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

A BIG complaint here: no taxis are available. Moto taxis, yes. But there have been accidents there and I've heard more bad than good about the drivers.

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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?

I wouldn't recommend a car--the roads here can get really beaten up and usually the locals' attempt at fixing them (e.g. throwing rocks in potholes) only makes them worse. Our SUV has worked fine here though. Another sidenote: car repair--say you need a tire fixed--is ridiculously cheap (money-wise, not quality-wise).

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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.

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

NO. There are vets but not of U.S. caliber.

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Health & Safety:

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

No. So long as you use common sense, you will be fine. Don't walk outside in the dark: a teacher here was robbed recently while walking to school at 5:45 a.m.)

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2. 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?

Good. No complaints.

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

Pretty consistent. Hot: don't bring your hoodies and gloves. Occasionally the heat can be almost unbearable, but for the most part, it's just an eternal 80F degree summer. The evenings are pleasant, especially if the wind picks up. The rainy seasons bring a nice reprieve.

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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 worked for QSI, so obviously I have to vouch for them! The student body is rather small as of right now (30-40some kids), but it has only been up and running for a year now. The teachers there are incredibly passionate about education and about working on a one-on-one basis with students. The library (for such a small school) is quite large as well.

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Expat Life:

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

Small, as it IS a small post. But if you connect with even a few people, you can be happy. You'll just see them a lot, probably at the same restaurant, at the same time every week. That's kind of how life goes here. And it can be a very good thing.

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2. Morale among expats:

Depends on the person and also on the circumstances. Generally high, after you get past the initial culture shock. Getting away on a vacation is essential 2-3 times per year, I would say.

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

Totally depends on the family (or person). If you enjoy quiet and weekends at home, you will fare well here. If you don't, who knows, you just might change, as the country/pace of life here certainly isn't going to change. I have changed--from initially hating Cotonou to now enjoying it.

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

Yes.

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

I taught at QSI and loved getting to know the kids and coworkers there. I ate delicious fish and veggies for less than US$10 a plate right next to the ocean (Restaurant Wado). I got to know some amazing people over dinners and drinks, because there's not much else to do here other than eat and drink. Our home was like a mansion and yet always felt, well, homely: a wonderful perk for a post where we spent so much time inside.

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

You can learn to appreciate a whole different pace of life (if you're used to the American, go-go-go culture). Locals here are very carefree and take their time completing their daily tasks. Usually this is refreshing; occasionally, when you have a problem that needs to be fixed, it can be maddening. If you are a homebody, you will absolutely love this post.

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7. Can you save money?

Oh yes. (The good side of not having much to do.)

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Words of Wisdom:

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

YES. There's something oddly irresistible about this city once you make it your home.

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

Expectations. Benin will probably be unlike anything you've experienced. And that might be really hard at first. But in time, you can grow to love it.

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