Posts Tagged 'Benin'

The road to green heaven

The trip home consisted of various etapes. First there was the ride from Porto Novo to Cotonou. Chauffeur Nestor expertly wove through four lanes of traffic on a two lane road and was a true guide as I had a million questions about what I saw. All these new looking cars coming our way? Bought on the second hand car market outside Cotonou (voitures fatiguees d’Europe). The tired cars had been cleaned up and looked new and spiffy and were on their way to Nigeria where there is no port to import such things, at least not in bordering Yoruba land.

Then there are all the gasoline people, selling gasoline from rickety wooden platforms, bought cheaply in Nigeria. The gasoline is poured in and out of Whisky bottles, Coca-Cola bottles, water cooler bottles, anything that can hold the liquid and can be carried by a person across borders where no one is paying attention. The content of the bottles varies in color: from dark brown, deep orange, to the color of pee of a well hydrated person or a not so hydrated person. There are no gas stations on this stretch as no formal market could compete with the informal. This is how things work here.

Motorbikes are everywhere. They are the primary means of transport: taxis, haulers, movers. Whole families ride on such conveniences, toddlers squeezed between adults, babies like little cabooses dangling from mom’s back. I was too slow to pull my camera to catch a fisherman with a load of enormous (6 feet) rays draped over the back of his motorcycle.

The road is only 35 kilometer long and, like on the way up, it took us one and a half hour, a very entertaining one and a half hour I might say.

After a swift check-in with the ever so friendly Beninois I learned that the Air France plane was going to make an unscheduled stop in Niamey to pick up passengers who had been stranded for 24 hours. If that sounds like fun, it wasn’t, especially not for the families with 4 or five small children and babies who had been camping in the airport for all that time, run out of diapers and food and kids that were beyond tired.

Settling everyone into our plane took much longer than expected, both getting people in seats, especially moms with babies, and baggage in the hold. My seat mate was reseated to make way first for this mom and baby pair and then that one. In the end all the moms and babies were seated elsewhere and I had an empty chair instead of a crying baby next to me.

All the fuss delayed our departure, the serving of our dinner until 3:00 AM and our arrival at CDG until 8:30 AM as opposed to the promised 5:30 AM. At the gigantic CDG complex we were parked somewhere in the countryside, halfway to Paris, after a 20 minute taxi ride and then bussed back for another 20 minutes to terminal 2E where all the holiday makers of the world seemed to be converging. Needless to say I was not in a good mood. I barely made my connection.

Axel picked me up, we had lunch on the way home – lots of greens and freshness to make up for a week of yellow and white starch. The last mile I did on my bike, recuperated from the bike repair shop where it had been readied for our Cape Cod vacation.

Back home I parked my bike at our lusciously green vegetable garden, filled myself up with raspberries, fresh snow peas, beans, and then picked dinner: fresh eggplant, fresh beets, more beans and peas, an all-fresh-vegetable dinner. I am in heaven!

Nips and comfort

I have come to enjoy the interventions of my local colleagues and co-facilitators. They have completely absorbed the methodology and the principles of our approach to leadership development and contextualize it for Benin. They are brilliant interventions, making people stop in their tracks, pausing for reflection. It is exactly what I like to see.

We finished the second day of our three day workshop, also my last, as I have a vacation on the Cape to catch, on Saturday morning.

We sat around the table with its slippery satiny table cloth and said our goodbyes while eating our afternoon snack. It was comfort food day: ‘boullie amidon’ (literally starch porridge) made from manioc. The porridge was enlivened by condensed sweet milk (I had hoped it was vanilla sauce) to give the manioc some flavor which it otherwise doesn’t have. Next to the platter with the boullie cups was a pile of sandwiches that reminded me of camp, eons ago: thick square slices of white bread, spread with butter or mayo, with one tiny circle of mystery meat in the middle. But it was to be my dinner (little did I know that the Air France dinner would not be served until 3 AM the next day). snack

I leave the team with one more day to go on their own. I have complete confidence that they finish the job on their own.


This morning I was alone in the restaurant. A large flat screen TV is (always) on, mounted right across my gaze. Usually I hate eating in places that have flat screen TV mounted along the walls. On other days there have been debates with French people interrupting each other to spout their opinions in passionate debate, or Africans who probably have a French education (I saw no difference). Under those conditions it is hard to have a conversation with one’s table mates since everyone is looking at the screen.

Today there was no one to converse with and so I didn’t mind the TV. I was in for a surprise, something much better than the endless debats. I settled in for my breakfast of ‘oeufs au plat’ (cooked crisp with curled up brown edges), slices of Benin (French) bread, and prepared my cup of tea (a small bag of Lipton tea dust dipped into luke warm water, enhanced with Nido milkpowder). I could use some distraction.

First there was Rabbi Tan, who was surrounded by all sorts of symbols that I couldn’t pin to any particular religion. Seeing the name Rabbi I made some assumptions but those turned out to be wrong. Every morning, according to the waiter, Rabbi Tan reads the horoscope, hence his title of ‘horoscopiste.’ The waiter was watching attentively and told me he is a faithful listener, trying to follow Tan’s ‘conseils.’

Today’s special day was Wednesday (it is actually Thursday, so we’d have to wait a week). As for colors, toutes couleurs are OK. Special advice: don’t eat snake meat or kill spiders. The advice is of particular importance to Rams, Sagitarii and a few others I can’t remember.

Since I am a Sagitarius no snake meat for lunch today; I will have a few TUC/Laughing Cow sandwiches and finish my meal with Ivorian chocolate, extra bitter, washed away with a glass of water. Tonight’s meal will be on Air France. It’s going to be chicken or pasta I suppose, no chance of snake meat there.

Launch 2

We completed the third of my work assignments yesterday, two coaching trainings and two launching workshops. The coaching training of this week leaves in place a small group of senior ministry of health officials who are to accompany the leadership, management and governance program that was recently set in motion by our local project.

We are still in the phase of clarifying expectations, demonstrating our approach and philosophy, and connecting the skills training to real results rather than the vague promise of better leadership, management and governance. These are, after all means to an end, means that have been found wanting according to official ministry documents.

The results we hope to see from our combined efforts have to do with malaria prevention for pregnant women, vaccinations and family planning. The exact focus may still shift a bit now that we have 20 people from the rank and file join us for the ‘scanning’ workshop that will take place the next three days, to be followed over the next 7 months by three others.

When they leave on Friday they will have their marching orders to practice good leadership, good management and good governance at work and in doing so make a dent in a few very specific challenges of the ministry of health. If we all do our jobs well we will have something to show for these combined efforts 8 months hence.


I must have arrived on the cusp of the rainy season. Late last week the water-soaked clouds rolled in and have stayed in place ever since, periodically dropping their wet load on the lands below – when they do all hell breaks loose, rain is very noisy here compared to the sound of rain in Manchester by the sea.

Black-outs are becoming more than once daily occurrences. We are learning to work alongside the loud hum of the generator in the hotel courtyard. It intrudes into our hall with its already poor acoustics, mixing with the sounds of the street as we revert to old fashioned airconditioning: open windows.

Still, at 1:30 AM early this morning the electricity was on, allowing me to connect via the internet with fellow trainees in my coaching program for our required telephone calls. One member of our team is from Argentina, another from China and three of us from the US. We had China and Benin on the phone, midnight for me, early morning for China. These calls are part of our many graduation requirements: 10 more such phone calls, during which our task is to learn more about executive coaching. Managing this during my travels is a bit of a challenge. There is another call on the program tonight.

My bathroom is modern, newly tiled and gleaming but there is not enough pressure to use the shower. The gizmo that attaches the shower head to the wall is already broken, as it is in most (less than 3 star) hotels I frequent.

The faucet produces only a small trickle. It takes about 15 minutes to fill the large plastic bucket. Its presence and the small plastic bowl inside it should have been a clue – I am to take my showers the old fashioned way – fill the bucket and scoop water over myself. At the end of that ritual everything in the bathroom is wet. I am lucky to have my own bathroom. Next week, when I will be camping on Cape Cod I will have a functioning shower but have to share it with other campers.


I have started to take my meals from a local supermarket in the form of crackers, laughing cow cheese, canned pate, dates, yoghurt, and soup in an envelope. I haven’t quite gotten to the ramen noodles but if I’d stayed a few more days I would have made that part of my routine as well.

It is not that there is no good food in Benin, there is plenty. But the hotel does not appear to serve it and serve it in a reasonable time and my ability to move around town is limited.

Every day the ‘plat-de-jour’ is the same; announced handwritten on a white board at the entrance of the restaurant: a salad of sweet corn and tuna (both from cans), poulet yassa (an onion/olives/chicken arrangement the Senegalese prepare masterfully) and ‘pommes fruit.’ I am not clear what that is and won’t probably ever find out. board

I did try the plat de jour on Monday, skipped the canned appetizer and by the time the main meal was served our generous lunch break had already been surpassed by half an hour. I never tried the dessert.

The Poulet Yassa would have made the Senegale cry. It contained bits and pieces of at least one tiny sinewy quail that required sharper teeth than I possess.

Although a good part of the coastal area is planted with pineapples, and they are for sale everywhere, including right in front of the hotel, I have been unable to get them served in the restaurant. I am hesitant to buy one and serve myself in my room because of the steady stream of ants and the absence of sharp knives in this establishment. And so, after having lived practically on fruit and fish last week in Cotonou, I feel a bit deprived this week in the food department, which will be a short one as I leave tomorrow night.

Beliefs and practices

On Monday morning we were ready to receive our team of would-be ministry of health coaches at 9 AM. Two hours later only one had arrived. I am usually pretty good in my guesses at when we can really start but this time I was wrong by two hours. It turned out we all had missed some important information about local traditions.

There is a Monday morning ritual at the ministry at 8 AM that is called ‘monter les travaux.’ It involves raising the flag and receiving instructions from the minister. You cannot show up at the ministry and skip this event. How long these things last is anyone’s guess, least of all mine.

And then of course there is the 30 km that separates us from Cotonou. How long that takes on a Monday morning is another guess. My experience of yesterday, 30 km in one and a half hours on a Sunday in the middle of the day may give us a clue. At 11 AM we had finally a quorum and started, as such things always start, a little stiff, a little haltingly, no one quite knowing what to expect.

By the afternoon we had started to demystify some key concepts, especially leadership – all too often associated with politicians and people at the very top (in other words, ‘not us.’) And then we started to dive into the substance of our collective challenge that will keep the local teams busy for months to come: how do we want the improved leadership, management and governance skills to show up in relation to the priorities of the ministry of health?

April 2019
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