One of my missions was to observe the manner in which individuals interact with money during their day to day exchanges, notably with the omnipresent informal sector. Indeed, the population remains largely unbanked and the majority of transactions are in cash while abiding by a code. Firstly, there is the relational aspect unique to these short circuits accompanied by an omnipotent notion of trust that is the source of the community. I wish to learn more about tontines, these savings/loan money pot systems that rest on the principals of belonging to a community. Tontines are highly used at all levels of society and are a testament to the fact that social ties are built on the values of solidarity, mutual-aid and trust. In one of Abidjan’s infamous Maquis (drinking hole), a wise old man with whom I had the pleasure to chatter said, “ In Europe, wealth is an individualist notion, whereas, for Africans, it is a collective one.”
Nevertheless, it is in the villages that one is able to attend tontine gatherings and therefore gain a deeper understanding of these rites and the codes that surround this ancestral principal. It became clear, I had to leave the town as it was not biasedly representative of a true diverse West Africa. I had spent 3 weeks between Dakar, Abidjan and Lome; a frenzy of Urban capitals. I had to discover a new reality. Thus, with this in mind, I mounted the bus. I quickly realised I had not gone for the comfortable choice. I had opted for the local company not usually meant for tourists. The bus was chock-a-block and the other passengers seemed as surprised as I was to share this long journey with a Yovo (a white guy). The sun, already blistering rose just after our departure. I was seated near the window on the right. The direction being northbound, my window was eastward. Full sun. Of course, this type of bus didn’t have air-conditioning and the frail curtain whose threads were disintegrating after having suffered so many years under the sun did nothing to cool me from this increasingly suffocating heat.
How much longer must I endure in this sauna? How can everyone around me resist so stoically to this torture? They must have felt that in-human aggression of the sun on their faces. Or, was it just me who was overplaying this suffering? I told myself it was perhaps cultural. We, westerners, complain easily. We struggle to hide our grievances. Here, people must be more modest and thick skinned. I had to get on the same page. I gave up on the idea of sleeping a little and attempted to brave a smile and appear unfazed. The driver was stopping every 5 minutes to pick up new passengers. After an hour on the road, the central corridor had long since transformed itself into a sea of passengers. Some of them stayed stood, others sat on their luggage or corn bags. I didn’t think it was possible to fit so much in such a small space.
On one of our numerous stops, a young lady boarded the bus. She effortlessly stepped over the several meters of chaos that lead to my row before sweetly asking my neighbour to give her his place. The latter did so without fuss. This exchange was no loss for me, quite the contrary. She was very elegant and dressed to impress. Her perfume smelled of sandalwood. It was soft yet invigorating.
It took a while for us to start up a conversation. It should be said, that I was not at my best and was quite happy to enjoy her charming presence without rushing into my approach. A merchant of homoeopathic products was putting on a show. He displayed a sense of self-deprecation, seldom seen these days. At least that is what I thought until I realised that he was selling miracle potions.
This comical situation served as the ice-breaker for my conversation with Mariabel, my neighbour. Immediately, I thought she was different. She did not express herself in the same way as the others did. There was inherent wisdom and clear-sightedness in her words. Yet she was so young. We began talking of this and that, of Benin. Then we spoke about her, she told me about her occupation. A few days after she was born in a village north of Parakou, when a lightning bolt broke through her window and slashed her face, she was chosen by the elders to be a princess. Daughter of the God of Thunder.
Her tale was mesmerising and sincere. I allowed myself to indulge in her story like a naïve 5-year-old. It all comes down to context. If I had met Mariabel on the Metro in Pairs, I no doubt would have thought she was crazy. But here I was in Benin. The birthplace of animism. And all of a sudden it did not seem so farfetched, I wanted to believe her when she told me about her abilities. The further you get from large cities, the more you can feel transcendence like a pressing weight in the air.
Today, she finds herself at a crossroads between modernity and tradition. A student of medicine at Cotonou during the week, and a marabout in her village the rest of the time. Swaying from the rational to the mystic from one day to another.
The bus laboriously arrived at the first stop in the centre of the country; Dassa known for its rolling hills. Mariabel advised me to get off here and gave me the name of a close friend who would show me all the treasures this region had to offer. It was a good idea, a chance to get out of the furnace I had been sitting in, and turn to the next page of my journey. We swapped numbers and arranged that I would come visit her in her village provided I had the time.
Stay tuned for part two.