I love how volunteers come to visit me and complain about the city. They’ve got these wonderful posts where everyone is nice, you can bike everywhere, and integration is more-or-less easy. Then they come to big bad Cotonou and complain that the zemis suck, that the pollution makes them ill, that it’s expensive, and that the people just aren’t as friendly, all without thinking about the fact that Cotonou’s my post.
I fucking love this place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not all that comfortable with my role as a city volunteer, and may never be, but this town is home.
Guess what? The only time I get ripped off by zemis is when I’m with other white people. Large groups? We’re screwed. But worse, when other volunteers insist on negotiating, instead of letting me do it for all of us. Nope, you’re not going to get a good price, because it’s obvious you don’t know the city, and it’s obvious you’re not familiar with the rules of negotiation (always flirt, always smile, don’t be an asshole until they are).
I know this city’s expensive. Hell, I burn money like no other volunteer in this country! Nevertheless, I’m not broke. Don’t come here for three days and complain about how much money you’re spending. You don’t have to go to all the western restaurants. Beans and gari is 100F. Pate with meat sauce is 350F max. Try having to zemi from my apartment on the edge of town to the center to do Peace Corps business. That’s expensive, and it’s not an avoidable cost.
And the people aren’t friendly? WTF? Maybe you’re not being friendly to them. I know that all of my regular vendors go above and beyond for me. I’ll spend money there whether or not they try and teach me the local language, but they take time out of their day to do it anyway. They know that I don’t really care if my beignet came fresh out of the oil or if it’s been sitting there for 15 minutes, but they ask me to wait for the new batch that’s coming and give it to me piping hot anyway. My neighbors look out for me when sketchy men stop by, and the whole neighbourhood was on the lookout for a missing friend the other night. They’re pretty darn friendly in this town, when you take the time to be friendly yourself.
Yeah, there are more aggressive obnoxious men here than anywhere else in the country, but hey, welcome to the city. There are men like that in DC too. Yeah, the air pollution’s rough, but I have some of the cleanest water in country, so I’d say it balances. Yeah, the humidity here is worse than anywhere else in the country, but guess what? I’ve lost almost 20 pounds because of it. Yeah, Cotonou can be a big intimidating place, but you know what? It’s fucking home.