Cotonou, Benin Report of what it's like to live there - 08/23/14

Personal Experiences from Cotonou, Benin

Cotonou, Benin 08/23/14

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?

East coast U.S.

There was only 1 European-bound flight out a day, and they were overnight flights via Brussels and AirFrance. The Brussels flight left earlier but sits for a few hours in Abidjan before continuing to Brussels. The AirFrance flight is direct but leaves around midnight and it's usually packed. Both get you into Europe early in the morning. U.S.-bound flights are likewise 5-8 hours depending on destination.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years, 2011 - 2013.

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

U.S. Government work.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Haie Vive and Cocotie neighborhoods have most of the nice expat housing in the west of the city; I cannot speak for other areas. Commutes are short. There are new neighborhoods/developments sprouting up, but they're not within walking distance of anything of note. However, they have much nicer housing than Haie Vive, which is largely made up of older housing.

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

Availability of most non-standard items can be spotty. For instance, you can get soy milk at Erevan, but if you need it and it's there, you better buy a lot because there's no telling when it will be re-stocked.

If there are particular products you like, and you have ways to get them from outside the country, you should stock up early.

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

More board games. If you work for the U.S. Embassy, you'll have pouch access (and maybe DPO in the future), so if you discover something you're missing, you'll be able to get it...eventually.

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

The Haie Vive neighborhood has some, as does the "downtown" area. However, "decent" is a subjective term in this case. While you can get Indian, Thai, and a few other kinds of cuisine, be prepared to have mild gastrointestinal issues throughout your entire time here - there's no avoiding it.

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

Mosquitoes. Lots of them. For a long while I was bitten fairly frequently, but I actually took my malaria meds pretty regularly, so I never contracted anything.

There will also be ants in your house, without fail. Probably the occasional cockroach, too. And since most of the housing has excessively shoddy construction, you won't be keeping them out.

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Daily Life:

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

USG diplomatic pouch. It's slow, so don't plan on getting anything quickly (2-4 weeks). Mail access for the general public is generally dreadful and expensive; UPS and DHL operate here, but they can be prohibitively expensive.

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

Available, cheap, and generally trustworthy. Competency can be an issue at times.

I paid US$160/mo for someone to work for me 5 days a week, and he did everything (cook, clean, laundry, errands).

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

In the private sector, yes, but they're generally expensive and limited in equipment offerings.

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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 did not use my plastic for the two years I was there, but I've heard of people who did.

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

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

You can probably make it through shopping at the grocery store without any French - god knows the Nigerians who've lived here for years without learning a word of French get by somehow. Restaurants will be a bit more difficult.

It all depends on how much you'll need to do yourself.

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

Folks with significant physical disabilities need not apply, especially if that disability impairs their ability to walk without assistance.

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Transportation:

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

I'm not aware of any trains functioning in the country. There are intracity buses of varying quality. There are taxis/cans as well, but they're of generally dreadful quality. And break down a lot. And make you and all of your possessions smell of gasoline. And are packed to at least 2x normal capacity. But they're all cheap for someone making a western salary.

Just use your own vehicle.

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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?

Something with good ground clearance and a strong suspension. Four wheel drive is required if you plan on bringing a heavier vehicle; I had a Toyota Rav4 that was FWD, any I never got stuck, while someone with a larger SUV did once in deep sand. And unless you're a hermit, you will find yourself driving outside of the city (to the beaches, for instance) where such a vehicle is a necessity...unless you don't mind wrecking your undercarriage.

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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?

Technically yes, but it's high-speed for Benin. I had a 1mb DSL line which cost US$160/mo. I could maybe stream things late at night. The ping will be bad (usually 150-250+ ms), and you will experience frequent packet loss. Expect to spend lots of time buffering low-quality streams.

I understand there are satellite options as well, which can only be worse. There's also a "wireless" internet option (probably using some sort of fob), but I have no direct knowledge of its performance.

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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?

USG direct hires are issued phones. The work...more or less. Plans are cheap. Smartphones work here, including live streaming.

Bring something unlocked if you like, otherwise plan on picking up something cheap and disposable.

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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?

Not that I am aware of. There are some decent local vets, but their capabilities will be limited.

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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?

Extremely limited - you should not/not go to Benin without a job in-hand.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Plenty, but still not exactly easy to avail oneself of.

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

This will depend on your place of work. I wore a suit every day.

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Health & Safety:

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

Niger and Nigeria present all sorts of regional concerns, but there aren't many concerns with day-to-day living. This is especially true if you work for a foreign government or NGO, since you'll have a car - a lot of the crime is petty robbery, and largely victimizes people riding motos at night.

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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?

Malaria, yellow fever, and now apparently ebola. Medical care is laughable - anything even close to serious will require a medevac to receive proper treatment.

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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?

Moderate, perhaps? It can be pretty dusty, and there's not exactly anything like the EPA here to enforce emission standards.

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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?

See above. It alternates between dry heat, sweltering heat, sticky humid heat, and monsoons.

It's not as hot during dust season, but then there's all that dust.

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Schools & Children:

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

There are French, Indian, American, English, and Nigerian international schools. I don't have kids, so I cannot speak to quality, but I understand the French school is reputable, while the English school may have shoddy management.

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

Probably none? Folks with disabilities here have a very hard time.

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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?

There are a few, but I have no direct knowledge of them.

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

Not that I am immediately aware of.

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Expat Life:

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

Overall small, with the anglophone portion being miniscule - mostly the U.S. Embassy, Peace Corps, and a few other random folks. Morale varies greatly from person to person, depending on the social circles that are present at any particular time, as people come and go fairly regularly.

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

Things at the house, restaurants, the beach...that's pretty much it. A lot of people drink a lot, for lack of anything else to do.

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

If you're a strong French speaker, and perhaps wouldn't be so concerned with some of the morally-questionable folks in the French expat community - possibly.

However, if your primary language is English, or if hanging out at loud francophone parties with a lot of people smoking pot isn't an option for you - not so good.

But - if you're a couple who generally prefers to stay at home, you might be OK.

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

It's not the worst, but don't plan on participating in any pride parades. The north of the country is predominately Muslim, while the south is Christian, and people take their religion very seriously in Benin. However, I've seen a few instances of like-minded folks being able to find each other here.

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

Racial - generally, no. If you're Caucasian or are otherwise clearly a foreigner, you'll be given a fair amount of deference.
Religious - no. Folks tend to be able to get along, whether they are Muslim, Christian, or animist.
Gender - yup. If you're a woman, especially a Caucasian, be prepared to receive a lot of verbal sexual harassment. This is less of an issue if you're working for the U.S. Embassy, or are otherwise not having to deal extensively with the general populace. However, if you're going to be a Peace Corps volunteer, and you'll have to take mototaxis a lot, plan on getting a lot of unwanted marriage proposals.

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

...saving money? I found Benin itself to be exceedingly forgettable.

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

Some of the beach restaurants are passable, and some hotels have a pool. The Livingstone, a restaurant in the Haie Vive neighborhood is an expat standby. However, be prepared to make a lot of your own fun at home.

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

The artisan markets or traveling vendors have all sorts of little nicknacks, but they are definitely not unique.

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

Benin was scant infrastructure, so casual touring doesn't really exist so much. The local culture can also be pretty difficult to get at if there's even anything of note to see - the slave trade, and then colonialism, really stunted cultural growth in this country.

The weather is pretty different from the U.S. though you have four seasons - hot season, little rainy season, short hot season, and dust (harmattan) season. Though at night, you can usually count on the temperature dropping to a cool 85F after midnight.

One plus is the ability to save money - there's not much to spend it on locally even if you regularly blow cash at Erevan (the only real Western-style grocery store in the country) on things like Magnum ice cream bars.

There's also a fair degree of freedom - crime is normally not an issue for an expat, the cops will not bother you if you have diplomatic/NGO plates (rather, they'll salute you). However, good luck finding something to do with this freedom.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes, but only if you can resist flying out of the country at every opportunity - flights are expensive.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Not all of Africa is equal - Benin doesn't have the rich culture of, say, South Africa or Kenya. It's really quite sad.

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

Yes, but only for professional reasons. As someone who loves hockey, skiing, and the internet, Benin is quite a sad place.

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

Hulu or Netflix streaming accounts, unless you're an insomniac watching them at 2 in the morning.

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4. But don't forget your:

Books, boardgames, or booze. You can bring movies and such as well, but hopefully you have equipment to properly protect your TV from the horrendous power supply - some people have lost all sorts of things to Benin's dirty and insufficient power.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Out of Africa
...wait, that's east Africa.

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

I'm not sure anyone has ever written a book of note about Benin, besides the obligatory tourist books.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Some folks had a great time, others were absolutely miserable. Most folks I know just dealt with having to be in Benin for work, and were happy to leave once their assignments were up. The only folks I know who would even consider going back voluntarily are Peace Corps volunteers, who have a vastly difference experience during their time in the country.

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