As a child, I was one of the fortunate few who had the luxury of traveling to the village on holidays. Dad hails from Badagry but no girl was good enough for him in his place of birth except one resourceful Nurse from Osun… Whenever we journeyed through Badagry expressway, I’d ask my dad why we have to always alight at Badagry round-about instead of proceeding towards the border. All he’d do in turn was let out an awkward wry smile.
He must have been thinking about how difficult it’d be explaining what a land border was to a 7-year-old. But my mind was already made (just like it was the night when Iya Bukky told tales of the warm and cold spring at Ikogosi). I knew I would someday go farther than Badagry roundabout to see what was beyond. But no one told me it’d take more than 15 years. I mean, nobody ever did.
* * *
11:10am was when I left my house in Ikotun Egbe with an almost empty backpack containing just my phone, laptop, chargers, ID and master cards. No clothes, except the one I had on- a blue Tshirt on a faded denim shorts stopping just below my knees with N20,000, my entire budget for the trip stashed in each of its back pockets. The heavy drizzle influenced my decision against wearing any sneakers.
By 12:12pm, I had gotten to Iyana Iba where I joined 13 others on the next bus destined for Seme border through Badagry Express road. N700 was what each passenger parted with before the bus moved us all to Badagry 90 minutes later. The drizzle had subsided by then, and since only 3 of us were headed for Seme border, it made no sense for the driver to continue the journey, so no one protested his move to fixing us in smaller cabs taking travelers to the border. He paid our new driver N150 for each of us.
At least three times in the 2005-2017 period Has violence broken out in the border town, with fatal consequences
Crossing Seme Border Without A Passport
Twice every second, my head pounded for reasons beyond me. I needed nobody to tell me how huge the risk I was about taking was (or maybe my fears had the better part of me). Crazy thoughts of the uncertainties ahead made the pounding frequency worse.
“What if I the custom officers find the laptop in my bag and deny me entry or request for the receipt which I don’t even have?”
“What if the driver and all other passengers are a team of robbers?”
“This man behind me with full beard might even have a gun on him”…
The thunderous cough from the lady seated by me in the front seat jolted me from my reverie. I barely knew when she joined me. “Sorry ma”, I said, with my attention split between my fears and her condition. She sneezed again (this time harder). I repeated the ‘sorry’, raising my voice higher as if it’d make her stop. “You go sabi take care of woman o”, the driver blurted out amidst laughter. I knew I had won him over with that but I kept my cool by replying with a light grin.
Everyone except me alighted at Seme border. And Like the driver knew why, he asked if I’d want to cross to which I replied yes. He thought I had done this before due to the kind of confidence I exuded, so he asked how much I usually pay and I told him N200 (even when I know bikes take N1,000). We haggled back and forth before finally settling for N400. He twisted the ignition and drove slowly amidst multitude of humans, vehicles and unappealing roadblocks which made up the checkpoints. On getting to the major roadblock (which was just a long bamboo stick placed firmly on two drums filled with cement) he spoke in a way that convinced me he wasn’t a newbie, and like a forgotten butter in the sun, the fierce-looking guys in charge of the checkpoint let out a warm smile the moment money exchanged hands. They allowed us through. No one had time for the guy on faded shorts. At this point, I had slipped my flat bag underneath my legs- something that wouldn’t have been possible had I packed fully for the trip.
After driving for another 2 minutes, he pointed forward to an open space (the size of a football field) and told me to walk as though I was a part of the everyday people I saw walking. I obeyed and even added a straight face to make the whole thing more real. Since N1,000 was what I had budgeted for crossing the border, I gave him N500 like it meant nothing to me, I flung my bag to my right shoulder and continued without looking back to acknowledge any of his praises.
Naira To Cefa
At about 20 feet towards exiting the border town, I saw close to 30 of them by my left under their umbrellas which provided them just enough refuge to shield them from the angry sun. At first I didn’t know what they were there doing but as I moved closer, I saw one of them counting money. Then it dawned on me that my Naira notes will become useless the in a matter of seconds if I don’t change them to CFA.
I looked at the men again and saw one with Tribal marks. I figured he’d be from south-west Nigeria, so I approached him. I had checked the prevailing exchange rate before getting to Seme and figured it’s 1.5 CFA to 1 Naira, so when he told me his rate was 1.65 to 1 Naira, I was overjoyed. I changed N25,000 Naira which gave me N41,250 Cefa in return. Everything was just a few notes and a few coins. I thanked him and moved on joyously through the tiny gate which led to
Heaven the beginning of Benin Republic.
Unlike what is a major practice around the world, There are no images of any national hero on any of the CFA Notes Or coins.
I had already asked the money changer how much it’d cost me to get to where I’d take a bus to Cotonou from the gate, so when the bike I hailed said 200 CFA, I didn’t argue. He drove forward a bit and found another passenger before finally zooming off into the heart of Benin Republic’s capital.
I was finally able to take a deep breath. I looked back to see if the guy behind me wasn’t an undercover police. Satisfied with what I saw and how deep into Cotounu we had gone, I smiled within me as tears raced towards my ears as if to take refuge inside them due to pressure from the fierce wind but I cared less. All that mattered was that I had finally achieved a lifelong dream my dad had always prevented me from.
I crossed the border solo!
On alighting at the round about, I stretched forth a 500 CFA bill to the rider for my fare, but this guy behind me seems not to have a smaller denomination, so I told the rider to take 400 out of my money for both of us. I had successfully crossed one of Africa’s most popular borders solo and I needed to wash it. To the young man, I must have been a good Samaritan, to me, I had just lured him into a friendship he mightn’t have consented to on a good day. He felt indebted to me when I told him I was a stranger who needed to just see the city, so he motioned me to follow him. The whole thing was simultaneously funny and scary but I followed him like a hypnotized rabbit.
After many seconds, we both got to where the next bus destined for Cotounu was loading and hopped in after being told the fare was 200 Cefa per person. We waited for one more person before the journey started. We were both seated at the front, but said nothing to one another until our vehicle finally broke down halfway into the journey.
Everyone jumped down angrily to seek an alternative. For over 10 minutes, We all took refuge under the scorching sun before a 504 Peugeot pickup slowed down in front of us, since I knew nothing in french aside Merci, my multilingual friend engaged the driver, who insisted on taking 200 CFA if we’d sit in the trunk of the vehicle. In this situation, we were beggars, hence shouldn’t argue with our benefactor even though we were paying, so we hopped into the trunk.
Peacemaker volunteered to take me round his school (the size of a regular Nigerian secondary school) and hostel before taking me to a corner shop where I got a Zoom sim card since Airtel isn’t functional in Benin Republic. This made me 1,000 CFA poorer but I cared less. I still had N15,000 stashed in one of my pockets.
Compared to Lagos, the streets In COTONOU are generally wider and mostly untarred. hardly will you also find streets with Gutters.
I bought roasted chicken for both of us and gave Peacemaker 500 CFA even though it wasn’t enough for all he had done for me but he appreciated it.
Hotel Green Horse
It was getting dark so we flagged down a vesper bike which took us to Hotel Green Horse, where peacemaker usually took his swimming lessons. I paid 23,000 CFA for two nights since I liked the hotel for it’s proximity to the city center. I waved him goodbye and retired to my room.
It’s a 4×3 meters wide room with the very basic, yet fascinating furniture which gave it an aura of classy antique.
Why wouldn’t I fall in love with a modest room with a sane AC, succulent bed and wardrobe large enough to allow me carelessly place my things? The toilet which consumed 1/4 of the room’s space was so clean that one would think it’s never been used. The lid on the WC was as heavy as Nigeria’s problems and the pressure from both shower and tap was beyond what I could comprehend.
I dropped my bag, showered and wore the same cloth I’ve been wearing all day again, since I don’t have another.
The electric socket in Benin Republic according to world standards is of the type C / E which is of 220V, 50 Hz compared to that of Nigeria which is type C / E of 230V, 50 Hz.
I inquired from the receptionist where I could buy beer and he pointed me to the poolside where I bought a bottle of Beninicise beer and drank silently while I browsed the internet using the Hotel’s wifi. I reflected on how the day went, I thought about my family, my girlfriend, the office and the things yet to come. By now, I was feeling drowsy.
Sleep came exactly when I expected it at 9pm and I didn’t protest as the beer contributed to my swift decision-making. With my laptop locked inside my right armpit, I placed one foot careful in front of the other as I strolled briskly to my room. In what sounded like a thud, I landed face-down on my bed. I forgot everything that had to do with the earth within a split second.
The TV which had been switched on before I left the room was still on, but I was too lazy to press the power botton on the remote control even though it was just a few inches away from my head. “shebi you paid for the room with your hard-earned money, leave the TV jare?” the soft voice inside my head said. I agreed with the argument and tossed the remote away to make more room for my head.
The AC didn’t stop blowing but my duvet was as thick as a bowl of oatmeal.
to be continued…