Thursday, 26 May 2011

Kicking Off The Trip (With Photos!)

So, onto the actual trip. For an overview of the trip, I haven’t found a decent map, and those that do exist are generally wrong (trust me. I’ve tried following them). So, in my hour of need I’ve turned to Paint, and drawn my own. I hope you like it.

Kick-off: Cotonou.
I’m going to slip in a couple of photos of a trip we did in Cotonou itself: There’s a stilt village called Ganvier on the large lagoon here, renowned as the “Venice of Africa” (SOME interpretations required).
Stilt houses in Ganvie
High-rise (MUCH better in the floods)
Oh, and before leaving, there were one or to problem with the car we were borrowing from Vincent. Again, the photos can probably do the talking, but we left 3 days late due to complications with the engine. Let’s say it reminded me a lot of preparing for an infamous trip around Europe I did in a ’72 VW camper a few years ago…
"La Vache", ready to go
Ah, good old Lizzie. I think she'd have been a safer bet for this trip...

But off we went. First stop, a lunch at my old favourite, Grand Popo.
My Beach.
Next, to Togo.
Although we were aiming for a place called Kpalimé within the day, we got our first taste of locals guessing the time required to get anywhere. At 3pm, we asked, “how long all the way to Kpalimé?”.
“Oh, only 2 hours. Definitely.”
4 hours later we reach Lomé, Togo’s capital (about half way), and make an unscheduled stop for the night. Underestimating times will be something of a leitmotif to these blogs, in case you hadn’t suspected it.
Not much to say, we checked out the market, did some shopping, and headed off. As a whole, it’s much smaller than Cotonou, and much less commercial. In fact, I had a renewed appreciation for how well developed Cotonou is. Until we reached Ghana, which dispelled that appreciation.
Finally, to Kpalimé
“1 hour," we’re told.
We got there in 4.
Kpalimé is a little town up in the hills of Togo, where there’s some great scenery, plants, butterflies etc etc. To relax we went for an 8 hour walk through the jungle. I was hot after 2 minutes. I can’t remember anything beyond the first hour. But the photos are nice.
Checking out a waterfall with our guide, Guillaume
Reminded me of my time in 'Nam...
Butterfly tattoo made purely from plants
Cooling off at a waterfall
NOT cooling off at the top of Mt Klotou
 And I’ll leave it there. Next post will see us through the highs and lows of Ghana, our main objective of the trip.
Learning from this blog? When driving in Africa, ask how long it will take, and triple it. At least.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Back Online (And Other Stories)

Ok, so it’s finally time to break radio silence – apologies to everyone for not filling your days with wonder and laughter as usual… The reason has been that I’ve been away from Cotonou, and on my return half of West Africa was out of internet as apparently a ship had hit the sea cable from Europe. Anyone notice?
There’s a LOT I want to write/show since the last post so I’ll break it up over a few rapid fire instalments. But the general topic is going to be a little trip I made across West Africa.

Here at last!

A good start
Yep, we didn’t leave on time, of course. I say we – I should probably mention that Rian has made it here safe and sound (Martyn I hope she’s already texted you. Otherwise apologies for the late notice of your daughter’s safe arrival to Benin….).
The first hurdle was my illness, which left me in bed for the better part of a week. Although pretty uncomfortable, I mostly missed work days, so can’t really complain!


Next hurdle: visas. Visas, visas, visas.

It turns out that to get to Ghana you have to get a visa from the embassy in your home country. As I wasn’t ready to pop back to London, I had to put on my best charm. And after 5 visits to the embassy here, I finally swayed the consul to let me visit his country. Thanks very much to them, it was nice.
But visa issues are never over: my Benin visa was about to expire, and I was pretty keen to get back into the country. This is the official procedure:
1.       Get proof of residence from your neighbourhood chief
2.       Get slightly more official proof of residence from the town hall
3.       Get even more official proof of residence from the town hall (NOT at the same time. MUST be done sequentially. Requires your landlord’s signature. Who happens to live in Nigeria. Damn. Also very expensive to get.)
4.       Get immigration approval and visa extension
After 3 weeks and only getting to step 2 in the process, I tried “Option Number 2”:
1.       Go straight to immigration, smile sweetly, and enquire whether there isn’t “another way”. Oh, and bring some loose change…
So, good to go?
No. Still visa issues, I’m afraid.
We weren’t travelling alone. A good friend here, Iris has just finished her year in Benin and we arranged to do Ghana together. However, she had less success charming the Ghanaian cashier lady, and met with a few more formalities to meet.
It came to a head when we were both at the embassy (separate issues), and Iris complained about the unfairness of her treatment as opposed to mine – “Why do I have to when he didn’t?”. Fair question. The reply: “Ah. He should have done. I’ll have to notify the authorities and they’ll cancel his visa.”
Smile sweetly. Hope…
After a bit of ego stroking, they decide it’s not worth the hassle, and tell us there’ll be no problems.
Excellent. Everyone has visas, we’re sorted.
Not quite.
I call another Kiva Fellow in Ghana, with whom we’d hoped to meet up, and in fact whose address we were using as the “official address while in Ghana” for the visas.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to help you after all,” she announces. “You see I’ve just realised I’ve overstayed my own visa, by over a month. I’m focussed on trying not to get deported right now…”.
With that omen we hit the road. That’s the last I heard from her until we arrived at her town in Ghana….
But more on that later.
Lessons from this blog? If you have to get through red tape in West Africa, make sure you get started early. And always look for another, simpler way...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Just Another Weekend in Benin

The plan: Drive down the coast, pick up some friends, carry on to an estuary where there’s loads of place for kiting. Sounds simple? Absolutely.
The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry
We hit a snag. After two hours of driving, we see our goal, about one mile away: The broad river sweeping into the sea, with a nice wide and slow moving river mouth.
Ideal. Of course, the road was not a road, and the sand was a little loose, but it had hardly been the M25 since leaving Cotonou. And with Patrick’s mad driving skills at the wheel, what could go wrong?
That’s when we start skidding.
No problem, let’s get our rally heads on, and plough through this stuff. Remember, failure is not an option.
That’s when we stop skidding. Oh, and we stop moving too.
No problem. Just gonna slide the car into 4x4 mode, and – “Oh, no, this doesn’t have a 4x4.”
“No it just looks like the sort of car that would have. Clever, isn’t it!”
“Well, yes, now you mention it, I always thought it was a 4x4. You must have got it at a very reasonable rate, and yet it gives a very satisfactory performance through the ruts. A little choked in the higher gears, but – WAIT A MINUTE HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET OUT OF THIS MASSIVE SAND TRAP NOW!!!!???????”
You see, our enthusiasm for rally style driving had carried us a good two hundred metres across what can only be described as a massive sand trap. In fact, if giants played golf, this would be the little bunker, just after chipping the ball across the Atlantic and before hitting the fairway of the Sahel.
Locals to the rescue
Luckily, we were near a fishing village. And the locals LOVE helping stranded white people. I have no idea why. Just for the fun of it, no doubt. Don’t ask questions, just get out of the sand.
So began our 20 minute wrestle, Patrick revving the engine beyond the red zone while attempting to reverse through the sand, and 20 local fishermen, women and children pushing the car for all their worth (after we got all of them pushing the same direction, and in the right direction...).
At midday on one of the hottest days of the year, on a sun-baked beach, with burning clutch fumes pouring out of the engine compartment as a thick black cloud straight in my face, my feet burning as I heaved the car across the scolding sand, I had a GREAT time.
A note: Patrick got us into this trouble. Completely and utterly him, no urging from anyone else. Yet he stays in the car and presses a couple of pedals while we basically carry him to safety? Typical.
So begins the wild, celebrating cheers from all around, as the simple joy of overcoming adversity fills us all with a common link, to be one together, helping your fellow man in the most altruistic sense of the – “So, you pay us for the help.”
“Ah. Yes. Rather burst my bubble there, old chap. Never mind, should have seen it coming. Not enough? No of course not, it never is, is it? Let me just get in the car and get out some more of my DRIVE DRIVE DRIVE!”

What a lovely picnic scene

In adversity lies opportunity
Regroup. Come up with a plan. Lunch. Definitely.
So, rather than a radical, extreme, mental afternoon of kite surfing crocodile-infested waters, we stop on the beach outside a small hut to have our picnic. And I play petanques with a couple of elderly local fishermen by the side of the road.

To cap it all off
We head back, with one final drinks stop before the last hour’s drive home. We get a call:
“Are you guys ok?”
Of course, why?
“Only there’s been a huge deluge in town and we were wondering if you’d been caught in it and whether you could get home?”
Look up: bright sunshine – check. Look at my shoulders: lobster pink, verging on tomato red – check. Look around: beautiful equatorial scene generally with not a care in the world – che… actually, what’s that dark bit in the sky over there?
Five minutes later, the howling gale.
Ten minutes later, the rains fall. HARD.
“Don’t worry,” says Patrick, “I can drive us home in this.”
Well, flash floods can’t be as bad as a bit of sand can they?
We got home. Let’s leave it at that.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Short Stories

Here’s a collection of funny anecdotes from my time here...
Let's see the change:
Having paid the bill for a meal, we await the change, only to find that not enough was returned. On pointing this out to the waitress (who doesn’t even bat an eyelid), she promptly returns with the right change, stating “My apologies, but the cashier has a problem with her eyes and can’t see”.

Know your menu:
At our local (very local) haunt at the end of our road, we order meals from the menu – 4 chickens with salad and one spaghetti bolognaise. After a 20 minute interval the waiter returns to inform us there is no salad. “No problem, we’ll take the green beans”.
“And for the bolognaise?” he asks.
“Er… don’t worry, no salad” comes the reply.
“So, just the sauce?”
“Er…no, with spaghetti”.
“Ah yes of course.” The waiter hovers, with a puzzled expression. “Excuse me, but what is a spaghetti bolognaise?”
“I’ll take the chicken.”

Listed on a menu:
Mango ice cream:            without cigarette: 2,000FCFA
                                       with cigarette: 2,800FCFA
From the same menu:
Tagliatelle (rice and beans)

A kind notice from a hotel bathroom:
Well, the message is clear anyway...

And also a quick collection of scam stories from people in the streets:
One which is actually quite feasible:
Ah! Hello! How are you? You don’t recognise me? I’m Theo, from immigration, we met at the airport! Let me guess, you’re still getting your visa finalised yes? I can help, make it happen very quick! Just for a small fee… What? Without my help, it will never happen. I can stop you getting this. I can make it very difficult for you, I know the minister….

One to be rewarded for the sheer commitment:
Ah! Hello! How are you? You don’t recognise me? I’m Theo, from immigration, I stamped your passport! Yes, good to see you again!
Pause one week. Move to another random street in town.
Ah, hi again! How’s the family? Yes, great, mine too, all very well. How’s your stay in Benin? Yes, lovely isn’t it. Anyway, must fly, bye!
Pause one week. Move to another random street in town.
Ah, hello again! Isn’t it funny how we keep seeing each other! How’s the family? Yes, all good thanks, and the stay in Benin? Yes, it is very hot. Actually, now that I see you, my old friend, I have a bit of a favour to ask…..

One with some impressive research:
Hi there, how are you? Are you enjoying your stay in Benin? Yes, it is very beautiful! Where are you from? Ah, Geneva? I know Geneva, I have a brother there! Yes, just next to Carrouge, around the corner from the university. Yes, you see the bar “les deux lions”, his house is next to that one! He works at the university as a researcher. Yes, small world indeed!
Actually, since you are from Geneva, I was hoping you could help me – I have a flight booked for there in two days, but they have changed the flight time. I need to call my brother to get confirmation from him, but I have no credit. Could you possibly lend me 5,000FCFA to make the call – I’ll pay you back next time I see you, and bring you back some Gruyere from Geneva!

And finally, the RSC (Benin chapter):
(Bursts into tears) Oh, sir, please, sir, I need some help! My wife is in labour! But she needs a caesarean, and I don’t have the money for the blood transfusion… They cost 25,000FCFA each – you see I have enough for one here (shows the money) but I need a second or she will lose the baby! Please sir! (reply "no" – the man stops crying immediately, shrugs, and says “y’a pas de soucis” – no worries. Another white man walks by. The waterworks begin again…).
Rockin' it Africa style

Word of advice...
Right, that’s about it, apart from a hot tip if you ever come to Benin: “On se tiend”, although it literally means “let’s hold each other”, here it means “let’s stay in touch”.
DO NOT go in for the full body hug. It gets very awkward…

Friday, 1 April 2011

From Benin With Love (And Other Cheesy Bond Analogies)

Today, I celebrate my 2 month anniversary here in Benin. As such, it’s probably time to detail a bit of what I’ve actually been getting up to here (it’s not all surfing and kiting, but I’m trying to keep the ratio healthy…).
The task:
In San Francisco, the Kiva guys gave me a lovely “workplan” with lots and lots of “deliverables”, which were all cleverly thought out by someone partly in the States, sometimes as close as Dakar. But not actually here. The voiceover from Kathy (my regional coordinator, who keeps me linked to Kiva HQ) was more honest: “They’re not doing great, and we don’t know why. So, just go along, get involved, and see what you can do”.
Although unclear, that’s the kind of carte blanche direction I like. A bit like James Bond. The James Bond of microfinance. Not with a licence to kill, but with a licence to help. Oh, yeah.
So here’s what I did. The first two weeks were pretty quiet, balancing careful observation of how things run here with my stringent acclimatisation routine of going to the beach most days. You can’t put a value on spending time reflecting on your observations…
Then – Eureka. I pulled out my help-gun. And pulled the trigger.
Oh Yeah.
A bit of (probably boring) detail:
There are a couple of key methodologies for doing microfinance. The simplest is the “one loan to one person” approach, which needs some form of collateral such as obligatory savings alongside repayments.
The next level up is the Grameen-style group solidarity lending, developed in Bangladesh. In this approach, a group of borrowers get together and provide social collateral – in other words, if you don’t pay, the other members of the group will have to pay for you, and you will suffer some social backlash (not to mention being kicked out the lending group). This approach is good as it avoids material collateral (which often doesn’t exist, these guys are poor), and it gives authority to the lending group – the extent to which I want to punish someone for not repaying depends on whether it was a genuine problem (illness etc) or whether they were just not pulling their weight.
Now, the partners here operate mostly with the latter. Something we at Kiva had completely missed. So when we published loans on the site, we published individuals. With life stories and photos. Which takes a long time to gather. All for loans in the region of $250. The guys here got fed up with it, and thought it was too much work for the benefits of the interest-free capital we give them.
The Golden Bullet:
On the Kiva site we have a way of publishing group loans, with a story on a “featured member”. So I simply rolled out this mechanism to all the credit agents so they got the relevant information. Now, rather than finding 10 clients, writing 10 stories, and taking 10 photos, they find one group at their group meeting, write one story, and take one photo. That saves about 90% of the work, if my maths is right.
These are savings which can be passed on as decreased interest rates, greater outreach to marginalised communities, and increased client services in the form of support and business training (note these guys are non-profit so it’s not a case of celebrating better profits).
Simple solution. And it shows the value of having someone out here to really understand what’s going on.
Hitting the target:
Just like Daniel Craig

So followed two weeks of driving around on motorbikes, getting burned, and training agents at the branches and out in the field with clients.
Now we’ve just finished publishing loans for the month of March. Kiva imposes a fundraising limit on its partners every month. For the past few months the guys here have raised in the region of 5% of that limit.
This month we raised 150% of that limit.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Back To The Beach

So, good news for all. Photos! So I'll keep the chat brief.

Lake Ahéme, on the road to Grand Popo

Local transport. Luckily we have our own car...

The Gana Hotel, Grand Popo
On the beach again. Left to right: Fishing boat,
women carrying a fishing net, and Patrick
Iris and Vincent
Patrick mastering a traction kite
Me, flying my kite from the sea

A bit of lift-off....
The was an eagle who was fascinated by the kite, he kept following it around.
Luckily no attacks...

Enough practice. Here are Raf and Patrick getting the
Big Boy kite ready...
Ready for launch!
And there she is, sports fans. Complete masterclass.
This kite has serious pull so you're strapped in to a harness.
I got a little nervous if I thought about what that
meant if the wind picked up....
Patrick flying the big one, under Raf's
careful supervision


Monday, 21 March 2011

Photography (without the photographs)

So the topic this week: Photo blog. At least that’s what I had planned: thousands of photos of little African children. Nothing sells a blog like cute photos.
BUT. I’ve failed again.
As it turns out, taking photos is not that easy – there’s a reason that Benin doesn’t figure highly on the Japanese tourist circuit. Cameras are not well received. Particularly big cameras. In fact, the bigger the camera, the poorer the reception. Which puts me at a disadvantage with the particular model I chose to bring out here….
Most people coming out here are aware of a cultural resistance to photography and put it down to Vodoun (aka voodoo) superstition. “They think it’s stealing their soul. Oh bless. How very primitive”, is basically the thought process.
I’ve only come across a Vodoun-related excuse when in a traditional village, and a procession of “devotee” women were walking by. They spend the entire adult life in a convent devoted to a particular Vodoun god, and only come out on these processions very rarely. They are considered very holy, so fair enough.
But leaving aside such particularly sacred examples, the major reason they give for their dislike of photography is money.
“You will take my photo, then go back to Holland,” they claim.
“I’m from ENGLAND,” I point out.
“Yes, Holland. And you will make lots of money”.
Yep, all white people with cameras are professional photographers who make their riches out of coming to Benin (for those who read my last blog “The White Man”, sorry this point should really have been in my “what the locals think of white people” list…).
“So if you want my photo, gimme money”.
Granted, this does allow me a way of getting photos. But it’s not exactly candid – what normally follows is that a group will get together and pose, badly. It’s awkward.
The concept of strangers photographing me doing everyday things is not completely alien to me. Back in my student days, our college would be packed with tourists, all desperate to take photos of students (particularly if you’re sat looking a little bleary-eyed outside the library during exams – apparently that makes for a great shot…).
And it did get grating. VERY grating at times. But the parallel can’t be drawn to the people here: there, tourists would visit to admire the splendour of it all, thinking us creatures of privilege.
Here, the “everyday things” are earning a living. Surviving through miserable economic conditions. I struggle not to think myself a little voyeuristic just strolling through an old traditional village.
You can justify it to yourself in many ways – it’s not the poverty; it’s the people, the colours, the shapes, the love of life, the beauty of it. But deep down you can’t shake that feeling.
For the people here, your very poverty is a tourist attraction, which at worst will be exploited by photographers when they get back to Europe.
And you react negatively. Or try to make some money out of it. You can be photographed, but on your terms. Fair enough. It puts the power of choice back in your hands. (But it doesn’t make for fun pictures!)
So there it is. I don’t take many photos, out of respect for those who might be in them. I hope I can learn how to effectively break down the barriers and have them be comfortable with my camera, but so far not much joy I’m sorry to say.

But I can't leave you completely empty handed...
Here's my new discovery: the Benin Marina hotel, in Cotonou. Pool, tennis, golf - very "Africa", don't you think....?