Porto Novo – A Glimpse of Life in A Dead Town

The capital of Benin is a small, dusty, and pretty much dead place. There’s really nothing going on. Even the sidewalk bars that open at night are lifeless. There may be people drinking and some music playing, but everyone looks as happy as if their favorite grandmother just died. Only the prostitutes laugh, talk and dance, trying desperately to make the few men enjoy their company instead of crying into their bottles of Flag beer.

We were really regretting coming to Porto Novo when, suddenly, there was a sound of beating drums and shrieks of excitement on the street. We rushed out of the restaurant where we were having lunch, and watched a parade of men in masquerade costumes stream by. The outfits, made of rags and covering the men from top to toe, resembled scarecrows. You couldn’t even see their eyes. The masked men growled at people and chased them, and if someone didn’t run away screaming, the scarecrows whipped them hard with leather rods. Interesting. So we followed.

We learned that this was part of the celebration of Benin’s 50-year Anniversary of Independence. The dressed-up hooligans walked up and down the Porto Novo streets, ran into stores, and begged for money. Like a cross between a Chinese New Year Parade the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Hundreds of townsfolk ran with them, or stood by, watching. Many gave them money when they asked for it, afraid that otherwise they would get beat up.

Others, the more greedy spectators, scoured Eduardo’s pant pockets to find some change for themselves. I was pretty much left alone, except for the probing hand of a guy in front of me who tried to open the front zipper of my backpack. Much to the pickpocket’s chagrin, I grabbed his hand and shook it. And smiled. He wasn’t amused.

When the parade came to an end, we returned to the slightly more alive city of Cotonou with a bush taxi whose engine died every ten minutes due to a dirty oil filter.

But we did make it there in the end. Alive.


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