Pondering West Africa

Except for my very short trip to Ivory Coast earlier this year, I haven’t been much in French West Africa for nearly a decade. The arrival at Cotonou airport reminded me of arriving in Mali decades ago, or in Haiti before the new terminal was built.

The French have many great words to describe the chaos: pagaille, anarchie, brouillamini, cafouillage, désordre, gâchis. Maybe it is the poet it in me that likes these words that are so full of the noises they describe. You can practical hear the luggage carts bumping into each other, grinding to a massive gridlocked halt; the enormous boxes wrapped in plastic film containing luxuries from France, dwarfing the men in dusters below them; the big mamas with their oversized boubous and large gauzy scarves; the babies, finally asleep and the husbands busy greetings friends and relatives.

There was no way I could see, let alone extract, my suitcase from the fast moving baggage belt through the throngs of people and carts that separated me from my case. Being tired and resigned rather than assertive I was slowly but steadily pushed into the walls of the tiny arrival hall. I think the hall was designed a long time ago when planes were DC6s and small boys carried one’s possessions past sleepy douaniers.  

Some people, maybe those from the diaspora, dressed in western clothes rolled their eyes at me as if to distantiate themselves from the disorder of their homeland.  

I thanked my lucky stars I had only one suitcase and nothing else.  I had offered to bring a Xerox box full of books – but that offer was made to late, for which I was most grateful. I surrendered until the suitcase would appear, and settled in for a long wait. Eventually it did appear and all was well.

This is what surprises me about this part of the world: the total acceptance, or maybe tolerance, of what seems such an easy problem to solve. Why not get rid of these bulky baggage carts and engage more of the skinny porters?

My sparring partner here, who hails from another part of West Africa, has a pair of glasses with one of the sides of the frame entirely bent out of shape. He doesn’t seem to notice or mind. Last time I saw him he still had the small sticker with the strength of the lenses (2+) attached to them. I wonder whether it is the same frame, now without the sticker. I think that frame was bent too.

I carry with me a small notebook and write down the things that I see that I find inexplicable. Sometimes these things make me smile, sometimes they make me wonder and once in a while they get me very irritated. I ponder all this while stuck in traffic and occasionally I have a brilliant thought, like this one: It occurred to me that the people here live very much in the present, unlike us in the US who live either in the past or in the future.

For example, even though it may rain heavily (the weather site for Benin tells me so, and, presumably farmers know about this), no one carries an umbrella. And then, when it rains, surprise, everyone gets soaked. Maybe that is the point – it’s refreshing while it rains, but afterwards?  [And of course, there are few Senegalese here, the guys who are selling umbrellas in New York, it’s more lucrative.] I, on the other hand, even though I never actually use an umbrella, always have one handy, just in case.

The people who live here could benefit to live a little more in the future whereas we could benefit from living a little more in the here and now. In that respect my co-facilitator and I make a good pair, me fretting about things that may or may not happen, anticipating alternative scenarios, and my partner looking happily through his crooked glasses at what is right in front of his nose. We have been making good leadership workshops together since back in the previous century.

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