Grand-Popo – Abomey – Dassa – Glazue – Natitingue – Boukombe – Tangueta – Bohico – Cotonou – Ouidah – Grand-Popo

Anna Retulainen

Anna Retulainen, resident artist in Villa Karo during March and April, travelled towards north. On the journey she experienced things totally incomprehensible to her, but she also understood the way to go to with her art. Regardless of all the difficulties, ”this trip has been the best thing throughout my time here”.

9 days on the road.


By moped from Grand Popo to Abomey. Great. Landscapes change at the right speed, as if I were watching a movie. Clay huts, half-collapsed constructions, animals. Pigs, goats, chickens and sheep on the road. Old trucks and overcrowded bush taxis. And the freedom to drive wherever. My expectations for the upcoming week are high. What really is Benin; how do its landscapes change? I’m tired of people constantly striving to reap benefits from anything and everything; them trying to sell anything and everything. It’s too hot, I’m lying in the dark, perhaps in the shabbiest hotel room since my inter-rails, but I’m safe. I can hear children screaming outside – apparently I’m lodged close to a school. The bathroom has a window; the room does not. At least there is a bathroom with shower, and a bucket to use for washing. It is hard to discern black people in the dark. I myself turned black after the trip. G looked normal, dark skin does not reveal dirt the way white skin does. It will soon be three o’clock, at four I’ll go out – hopefully alone. The light in the room does not switch on. Not that I’d be bothered to care about it. Perhaps it’s a power cut.

I was a bit nervous about the departure. Yet somehow we managed to fit our luggage onto the moped, everything was alright. Children’s voices mix with sounds of hens and cocks.

I am happy that I had the courage to leave rather than stay at Villa Karo on the terrace, contemplating the passage of time. I have had to tell my local guide to relax, that he doesn’t have to know everything, plan things, take me to see sights; that everyday life is the only sight I would like to see. This, however, doesn’t seem to sink in. I hate the way rooms here smell, of dirt and sweat that have accumulated over the years. I did not know what proper smells were before coming here, now it is all part of everyday life. When the children stop screaming, I will go out. I do not want to hear any more “Yovo” –white-skinned– remarks. I’m tired of all these screams.

Tata Somba. This is crazy, I cannot believe this to be true. I feel like I have again been staged in a setting called “Africa”. I’m going back to what happened on Friday evening. Or on Friday. We rode from Abomey first to Dassa, where we stopped for a moment. A pig just walked past me grunting profoundly. From Dassa we set forth toward Glazue probably because G’s friend and brother live there. His friend’s mother, sister or some other close relative had died, and throughout the day we observed the funeral preparations. Screaming and shouting; cooking; and eventually torrential rains, and mud all over. In the evening the body was brought in and placed, inside the coffin, on a bed to sleep. The scene was mostly comical and the mood, I’d reckon, rather cheerful. We ate well, drank palm wine, and finally we went to a bar. Right now somewhere an animal is screaming in agony, most probably tight into a bundle on the roof of a car.

Yesterday was a cumbersome day of travelling. 400 km on a moped is a lot, if not too much. Natitingue. Only one brief stop on the way. In Natitingue we lost track of each other, I’d left my phone in the hotel. In the end we found each other and drank too much beer. Now, we are in Boukombe. G is sleeping; boys or men are lying about and talking about something. Nothing is happening, not now, not ever. There’s just this never-ending wait. It is unbelievably difficult to get locals to understand that I do not want to see anything special. I want to be, draw and write. And that I’d prefer not to hear any explanations about anything. I’d rather read. Outside there is a huge tree, perhaps the finest that I have seen in Africa. I feel quite happy and at peace.

Chickens, pigs and other creatures walk around. Chickens live on the lower ground of a peculiar structure. The structure resembles a mini-sized castle or a giant sand castle. A pig walks past me again.

It is baffling to think that this is somebody’s reality. We are spending the night in a tent that does not hold water, a mere mosquito net serves as a roof for the night. Fortunately, no one speaks English. I never thought I’d be so happy that I do not speak a local language. I get to be at peace. Well, now some folks came to stare at my writing. Or most probably at the iPad. I am teaching English to G. He seems to have assumed this with a degree of resignation, maybe even with a bit of excitement, which means he is seriously giving it a try. Every now and then he manages to use the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’ almost correctly. Right now I’m guessing the conversation concerns the language I’m using on writing this – nobody would understand, neither Finnish nor English.

A line of women with umbrellas are walking past me. It looks very bizarre. Some of them are carrying goods on their heads, under the umbrella. I would guess this is for protection from the sun, not from the rain. Lizards chasing each other. The father of the family has two wives. And hence two tata sombas, one for each wife and set of children. The old woman will not leave me alone. I speak to her in Finnish. That always works the best. Unbearable screams and a horrible language, whatever it is. G went somewhere, probably to get something to eat and drink. Old patterns repeat themselves: we eat too much, drink too much and sleep. Everybody here is sleeping, lying around. It is somewhat strange to think that about a hundred kilometres from here there are elephants, lions, and hippos, and I’m not going to go see them. The sheep have lost each other. I can hear it. The reality is wholly different from my own. I just don’t understand anything about anything, and the more time I spend here, the less I seem to comprehend this place. And more and more questions keep on popping up.

Morning. Roosters are crowing, people are starting to emerge from their holes. French-language radio blares in the background. It is 6.21 a.m.. G is asleep. The sun hasn’t risen yet. I couldn’t sleep last night, Lariam keeps me awake. It is wonderful to sleep in a tent. I’m not sure what happened yesterday: I must’ve fainted, fallen off the bench and I hurt my right side. A short while later I fainted again, causing too much hue and cry. Dehydration: the dry northern heat took me quite by a surprise. My back hurts but it shouldn’t be that much of a problem concerning the rest of the trip. Mooing cows and baaing goats. The surrounding soundscape has been incredibly rich throughout the night. There was a party somewhere out there, I could hear the distant drumming and shouting. I would’ve liked to walk towards the sound, but didn’t dare. G woke up. Nods in agreement, I don’t think for a second he really understands what I said. I would love to wash but have absolutely no idea how to do it. I suppose I just have to find out. I washed in a roofless mud hut. Dirty. It is puzzling how one can live surrounded by so much dirt. In any case, I’m clean now, that’s the main thing.

We drove to Kussu. Visited diverse Tata Sombas. It feels a bit like I’m part of some unreal dream, soon to wake up. I am force-fed, and got sick again. It is remarkably difficult to get it across that I am not going to eat unless I’m hungry. That I have been only drinking coffee in the mornings for as long as I can remember. I really don’t want to even hear of another omelette. I think we’re both getting a bit tired of each other’s company.

Yesterday I went for a walk again. I was given very clear and specific instructions: do not take pictures or go to people’s yards. Am I dumb? After coming back from the walk I ate rice, tomatoes and cheese. Diarrhoea struck again. G came home, looking particularly happy, carrying some unspecified dead animal. I asked what animal it was. He replied saying he had no idea; it was food. Pascal believed the animal to be a small wild cat Genett, at least it seemed to have spotted fur. Cats aren’t eaten, they are predators. Outside there was a bizarre quarrel, ten women screaming their lungs out – apparently they’ve been screaming so for the past two months. The man was supposed to have bought a sim card to one of the women, the woman had given him the money, but the man had never brought her the sim card. I figured out it was the man’s two wives having a go at each other. Both wives have their own Tata Sombas… but then again, I don’t understand at all how life here really works. To me the squabble sounded pretty belligerent.

I slept under a tree. At first I was forced into a sweltering hot little room, apparently because it would start to rain. It didn’t. Finally, G set up the tent, and I ended up there. My initial sleeping spot under the tree was apparently too sacred. The nightmare started at around 2.30 a.m. A large group of people arrived in the yard for a ”ceremony”, in which, to my understanding, someone who had died a couple of years back, was to be summoned up as a spirit. Though I could’ve gotten it all wrong. I would assume that he is now part of the huge tree in the yard under which I had attempted to sleep. The drumming, screaming, ascending and descending roaring continued until the morning. They must’ve danced around the tata somba and hang out on its rooftop terrace. They sacrificed chickens and set up fires. G took shelter in the tent and almost immediately fell asleep in that terrible noise. In the morning, I bought two litres of sodabi for the carousers. It finally silenced them.

We started driving towards Tangueta. A diabolical road and a punctured tyre. We did reach our destination, though. A nice hotel, my own bungalow, a working shower and toilet. Great! G took me to the waterfalls for a swim and tried to force me to eat. I refused. I don’t want to eat until I get really hungry. I also refused to come out of the water. I can’t stand the constant care and concern over the most trivial of matters. Now I am, at last, feeling hungry, I’ve gotten better again. The first mosquito of the night is busy searching for a blotch of bare skin in my body. Perhaps I’m beginning to long for home, it feels like it’s time to leave soon. This trip has been the best thing throughout my time here. We will return to Grand Popo perhaps on Friday, through Cotonou.

G went to repair the punctured tyre. I told him to buy a new tubeless tyre if he can’t find a suitable inner tube. All of a sudden I have decided not to continue travelling with a flat tyre. Some girl in the town had washed all our dirty clothes. How wonderful, clean clothes.

I’m hungry, food will consist of fowls, hopefully of no rice. I would love to have some fufu. We have travelled today only on ghastly dirt roads. The scenery is beautiful, looks like nature documentaries depicting Africa. Rocky hills, savannahs. We were apparently on the Pendjari side, it seemed strange to think that any time we might come across an elephant. G is back, perhaps we’ll take off again. I ate excellent fowl and fufu. I went to sleep on the floor after I’d woken up at 3 a.m. to a nasty spider bite. That very moment I also realised what I intend to start painting next. Travelling, silence, the chance to concentrate has clarified my thoughts, I’m already longing for my studio, longing for home. Savalu. Yesterday saw another insane ride, but this time we at least stopped every once in a while to rest. The moped is broken, and nobody seems to know what is wrong with it. I do hope we get to continue to Cotonou, or should I just buy a new moped?

We had dinner at some people’s courtyard, G fell asleep immediately after eating. I lay in the moonlight, wondering again how people disappear into the darkness. The room has a bathroom, but no running water. I have tried to recall if I ever came across a similar dilemma during my inter-rail times. I can’t remember. The scenery was beautiful also while riding towards the south. It is strange how the journey can be so different when travelling to opposing directions. And it is amazing how the journey home is always so much shorter. I’m not in a hurry yet.

I have learned to wait, I just calmly sit and hope that people will stop talking in their strange language at some point, and that something will happen, that the journey will continue. I await food and rest breaks. Morning coffee. Life is unhurried. Yesterday I threw a tantrum over plastic bags. Littering. Yesterday I learned that Nigerians copy Chinese products.

Perhaps it’s simply that the moped has been ridden too much, maybe all it wants is a bit of rest. I would like to get to Cotonou. G asked me if I had already tasted dog. I told him I hadn’t, but that in theory I wouldn’t mind giving it a try. He said we should catch a dog a grill it – I turned the suggestion down.

Many people here have some kind of a stick in their mouths. No one smokes, they chew their sticks, tooth picks. In the north, the roads are almost empty, one can go on for miles without coming across another car. Traffic starts sometime after Savalu. The roads are in a horrendous state. The moped has been repaired for over an hour now. Fortunately it broke down in the city and not on any of the empty roads in the north, under the scorching sun. This morning we had a good laugh about it, better that way. I would just rather not stay in this hotel. I’m certainly the only white person in this town, and yet so far nobody has shouted anything at me. The moped has now been fixed for almost two hours and I’m beginning to think that we’ll just have to buy a new one.

The moped was miraculously repaired and we continued our journey through Bohico to Cotonou. What a horrible road. Big potholes, billowing sand, a hundred years old overloaded lorries. Crazy weaving between the lorries, lungs full of exhaust fumes and dust. Finally peace at Cotonou. Chocolate and French cider. In the morning, the beach route first to Ouidah and then to Grand Popo. Home, shower, toilet.
This morning there wasn’t a strange black man knocking my door to ask whether I was ready. I was there already.

Art of Anna Retulainen, created in Villa Karo. Photographer: Jussi Tiainen.
Art of Anna Retulainen, created in Villa Karo. Photographer: Jussi Tiainen.

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