Cotonou – A Poor Man’s Motor City

It took a moment to realize that I wasn’t in France or Senegal, or somewhere in between. And that the hundreds of motorcycles coming towards me at break-neck speed were not part of the Paris-Dakar motorcycle rally, they were just part of the local traffic.

In Cotonou, Benin, where there are more than fifty motorcycles to each car, the only way to get anywhere is by bike. The “taxi drivers” are easily distinguishable by their yellow shirts with serial numbers. And they will carry anything, no matter what you need to transport – a suitcase, a table, a fridge, two goats – anything goes. With so many motos around, the competition is fierce, and negotiating a decent fee is usually a breeze.


But not only the moto drivers are looking for clients, everyone is. Sit down at the open-air bar at the Carrefour Cadjehoun roundabout, and you will soon be offered anything under the sun. Bedsheets, perfumes, DVDs, self-improvement books, umbrellas, cooking pots, work out gear. The people are desperate to make a sale, and walk from table to table, showing their goods. Mostly, nobody buys. Feeling bad for these salesmen who are trying so hard to make an honest living, we sometimes bought a pen or a CD. But what would we do with a cooking pot without a kitchen in Benin?

The most comical (read “sad”) display of goods was a woman with a whole round rack of clothes on top of her head in 90F degree heat. She could hardly see her way through all the clothes in front of her face. The heat inside the rack must have been deadly.

The most desperate of them was a seventy-year old man selling cheap baskets, with no one even looking at them. He stopped at our table for a long time, staring at us with his sad eyes, trying to convince us to buy one. We wondered what he dreamed about as a young boy. Could he ever have imagined that he would be selling crappy baskets at an age when he should be retired?

How much money can these people make per day? Two dollars? Five? Most likely not more than that. Perhaps just enough to have a couple of meals at a local food stand, and to take a moto ride home late at night when all the prospective clients have disappeared.

And the next morning they will wake up hungry, put their sales rack on their head and go out to try to make a sale, just to be able to survive.



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