Friday, February 28, 2014


In Parakou: So hot was my soup, I forgot my notebook!

By MAURICE ARCHIBONG (+2348056180050), mauricearchibongtravels@gmail.com

For a chronic ulcer sufferer, sampling foods, which a travelwriter must do, could sometimes pose a serious challenge. Across Benin Republic, ginger is a popular ingredient of the locals’ cuisine.

Me! MAURICE ARCHIBONG at Grand Auto Gare, Parakou.
All Rights Reserved.
So, whereas the soup (sauce) used to lubricate the swallowing of pounded yam (Igname pilée) might not be loaded with pepper (piment), the ginger content could still make it too hot; for some.

This was my experience eating at a little roadside restaurant (Marquis) near the Parakou office of Benin’s Ministry of Culture and Promotion of Indigenous Languages. Wow! Some Beninese do know how to prepare l'igname pilée, often accompanied with groundnut soup (la sauce arachide).

Interestingly, whereas pounded yam is seen as somewhat special, even exotic, by some Nigerians, this meal is a commonality in many parts of Benin. So ordinary is igname pilée that most diners’ stomachs are filled with just 200F (N70) worth. Such is the situation that no average diner could ingest more than 500F (N175) worth.

With regard to meat (viande), the price also starts from 200F. The diner has an option of beef or chicken and the price could rise as much as mille francs (1,000F or the equivalent of N350), depending on the size.

In any case, I had ordered 200F worth of pounded yam and beef of the same amount. When the dish arrived, the sight of the pounded yam left me instantly salivating. Promptly, I washed my hands preparatory to making the mound of igname pilée before me disappear.

But, after swallowing the second morsel, I felt some stings inside my mouth. The irritation came from the ginger used to spice up the soup. As I continued, the sting got worse, but I was determined to demolish the stuff. Though I managed to finish the pounded yam, the ginger also made sure it hit me real hard.

With phlegm running down my nostrils and my tear-filled eyes now blood-red, eating the meat was merely going to complement my ordeal. So, I gave up that part of my lunch. Yes, I literaly saw pepper on that day.

So rattled was I, that I needed to leave the eatery immediately before others saw an old man crying after a meal. Having previously suffered similar ordeals in the past in different parts of this world, I always pay as soon as my food was served in case I needed to rush out of the restaurant.

Since I had already paid, I rose from the wooden bench on which I sat and went outside to blow my nose and expel the load of saliva that now filled my buccal cavity. After that, I mounted an okada (called Moto in these climes) and left. That I could forget my notebook, which could be likened to an officer’s service pistol, at the pounded yam joint as I took flight; might help clue the reader in regarding what I went through!

Fortunately, when I rode back to the restaurant, the attendants, who were earlier alarmed at my distress now appeared bemused. “Yes, we found your notebook and kept it for you”, one of the young women offered in response to my enquiry.

Irritatingly, I had to spend 400F (about N140) to and fro as okada fare to recover my notebook after a meal that cost the same amount. But, words cannot describe my relief at recovery of this important document, which carried many notes that were scribbled as I travelled along.

Surprise, Surprise! Would you believe that I returned to that same marquis four more times for igname pilée before leaving Parakou? Such is the attraction of pounded yam in Benin for you! What is more?

I still eat igname pilée across former Dahomey because, reflective of the hospitable disposition of the average Beninese, many restaurateurs usually prepare a pot of pepper-free soup. Just ask for sauce sans piment to mix with your ewedu and voila, even an ulcer sufferer can eat without tears.

More thrill, frills of trip to Parakou

Welcome, once again to the northern Beninese Republic settlement of Parakou, administrative capital of Department de Borgou. Benin’s Borgou was once part of Borgu in today’s Nigeria, until international politics led to a border that cut part of the area in question into two different countries.

In any case, Department de Borgou could be likened to what is called State (Lagos, for example) in Nigeria. Benin Republic comprises 12 such Departments, against Nigeria’s 36; not counting-in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Ville de Parakou (Parakou City) stands more than six hours’ drive north of Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou; and, I was among scores of Nigerians that travelled up here for a workshop. At some point, travelling toward Parakou, I actually wondered, which was likely to interest the reader more between this settlement’s lore and the roadside blurs.

Interestingly, we had passed this way before and even went all the way to Malanville, on the northernmost fringes of Benin from where we crossed into Gaya in Niger Republic. But, that is not our story for today. Yes, between Cotonou and Parakou, Benin throws up numerous fascinatings sights.

Setting out

We had arrived at Carrefour Etoile Rouge (Red Star Circle) about 11am, but it was already too late to catch the last morning bus. So, it was up to us to defer departure till the next morning or go by what might end up a Night-flight as  Nigerians are wont to call night-time road travel.

Considering that the event I was billed to attend would open the next morning, leaving the following day would mean losing out on what transpired on day-one of the two-day programme. So, grudgingly, I boarded the huge antique bus as  there was no option of a smaller vehicle. Fortunately, owing to the plenitude of passengers, the bus soon had enough commuters to fill all its seats; which means we were soon going to be on our way.

Fare, getting there

On the day we set out of Cotonou, the fare to Parakou was 5,500F (roughly N2,000) in the 50-seater mammy wagon, which despite its antediluvian look, actually offered what could be described as smooth enough ride all through. Although I was comfy enough in my seat, the entire vehicle’s aisle was, however, taken up by all sorts of cargoes that rose from the floor to the ceiling, almost.

On the positive side, however, there was nothing like the nuisance called Attachee, countless passengers loaded on the bus that crowd the aisle of so-called Luxury buses in Nigeria. Inside many of the rickety contraptions we call Luxury buses, some daring Attachee determined to make life difficult for full-fare paying passenger often perch on the arm-rest of the latter’s chair and would remain there no matter how much you complained.

Nice town, vicious mosquitoes

This is Parakou, where the mosquitoes (Les Moustiqué) are extra vicious. Considering that, I ended up in hospital after my trip to Parakou, you certainly don’t want to find out how wicked these blood-suckers are. I had travelled some eight hours to get here. On hitting town, I had visited a few lodges and had been discouraged by either the environment or price, until I eventually located Hébergement Sika, situate on one of the roads surrounding Stade de Parakou (Parakou Stadium).

It was well past 11pm by the time I was shown into my hotel room. Dog-tired, I must have dozed off before hitting my bed. However, persistent stings from mosquitoes interrupted my sleep so much, I was forced to get up and set the blades of the ceiling fan rolling. But, the vile creatures were not detered.

At some point, I was left with no choice than to get up and spray the room with a can of insecticide, one of the items I usually travel with. Consequently, I would lose about 30-minute sleep, but I didn’t mind; knowing full-well that sometimes, things have to get worse to get better.

Due to the welcome security situation across Benin, I felt safe coming out of my room to sit all alone in the lodge’s reception area around 3am, waiting for the odour of the pesticide to wear out. Eventually, I returned into the room and did enjoy sound sleep till daybreak. However, the damage had been done because at dawn, when I woke up, I sensed a bitter taste in my mouth.

My appetit for food was also gone. I made a mental note to get some anti-malarial drug, but owing to the crowded nature of my days, I never got around to doing this. Moreso, I was eating normally again, apparently courtesy of the mineral supplement caplets I take. So, I had enjoyed more than a week’s stay in Parakou; only for the malaria to finally hit me weeks after, while I was in Accra, Ghana!

A day after I entered Parakou, I had gone to the town’s central motor-park (Grand Auto Gare) to find out, if there were still salon cars that ply the Cotonou-Parakou route. There were! And, guess what, the fare was the same 7,000F (less than N2,500) that obtained here, when we passed this way on 29 December, 2010.

However, we would end up paying double (N5,000) to avoid having to share the seat next to the driver with a second passenger. And, we had to do the same on our latest outbound journey. This practice of carrying six passengers in seats meant for four was evocative of the situation along Owo-Lokoja, Okene-Lokoja, Ikom-Ogoja et cetera in Nigeria as well as Sanve Condji-Lome and Lome-Cinkasse routes in Togo.

Shamefully, the muse that engaged my mind as I pondered on this issue; was: If Nigeria’s Road Safety Corps, Police, National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) et cetera condon the carrying of passengers in excess of normal capacity; then where are you coming from to criticise the practice in Benin and Togo.

The Nigerian scenario is made even more depressing because fuel prices are cheaper, and fares are always higher! Interestingly, the somewhat barbarous practice is not tolerated in Ghana, where fuel pump prices are higher than what obtains in Nigeria. Curiously too, only three passengers (not four or five as in Nigeria) sit per row in Ghana’s tro-tro (mini-bus). 

Yes, we’re still on Parakou. While the fare and vexious punishment meted to commuters remained immutatus, the condition of the road network had changed. Unlike the bumpy ride we endured along the once dusty route, the Cotonou-Parakou road was now cheeringly smooth. Yes, Parakou and every part of Benin throw up many thrills, but you sometimes have to take the bitter with the sweet. Oui, C'est ça la vie (yes, such is life).

Accommodation

The weather was cool and the air crisp when we hit Parakou. Harmattan was in the air. So low was the ambient temperature that I found it unnecessary to switch on the ceiling-fan in Room 104 at Hébergement Sika; after checking in.

My comparatively large room, roughly 12-feet by 12-feet, inside a bungalow, where I counted at least five other similar facilities the following day; had a bed, desk/chair, wardrobe, fan, TV, and bathroom/toilet en suite.

Yet, it cost a paltry 6,500F (roughly N2,200) per night to sleep here. Moreover, the immediate and surrounding environments were spick and span and water flowed from the shower. Also, the frequency of blackout was not as bad as the situation in some neighbouring countries. This must explain why tourists find Benin Republic a welcome destination!

Aside from Hébergement Sika, where I put up, Parakou boasts numerous other hotels and lodges. These include Hotel de Ville, Hotel Alafia and Hotel la Colombe et cetera. Located in the Banikanni neighbourhood of Parakou, Hotel Alafia is a four-floor affair.

The room tariff varied from 8,000F (less than N3,000) to 25,000F (over N8,000). In between, there were categories that cost 11,000F (less than N4,000) and 15,000F (N5,000). If you don’t have the stamina to climb all the way to the last floor, then you should be prepared to cough out more than 8,000F since rooms for that amount are on that floor.

We ended up moving on and looking elsewhere because of fear of the enervating climb to the last floor of Hotel Alafia, where the 8,000F rooms are. However, an advantage offered by Hotel Alafia is proximity to Parakou’s Grand Marché and City Centre (Centre de Ville).

Moreover, the tourist in need of roadside eateries and cafétariat would further love Hotel Alafia, whose surroundings throw up open-air teashop (mai-shayi), kunu (a sort of ogi/akamu/eko or pap) vendor and kose (akara or fried bean-balls) seller et cetera.

Parakou Sites

Parakou throws up a public sculpture in the centre of each of its many roundabouts (Carrefour). Among Parakou’s roundabouts is Carrefour Hubert Manga, in honour of a former President of Benin Republic, who probably hailed from these parts.

This Benisese town’s other attractions include Musee de Plein Air (an open-air museum) on Tchatchou road. For the tourist in search of enlightenment amid entertainment, Parakou’s open-air repository, which boasts a very large ground, where numerous craft-shops, bars and eateries abound; is highly recommended.

Additionally, Parakou is home of a sprawling emporium, where used clothings (Friperie) are sold.

It is called Marché Kobo-kobo and stands near the local Cimataire Militaire Francais (French Military Cemetery). Furthermore, this settlement also boasts a decades-old public university (Université de Parakou) as well as over 15 private universities, according to Mr. Sariki Chabi Bouni Adamou, Secretary (Secretaire) of Nigeria’s Hausa/Fulani Community.

The tourist may want to visit Internationale Arzeke de Parakou (International Market Parakou), which stands near Carrefour de la Colombe. The city’s Grand Auto Gare (principal motorpark) is located between the international market and the roundabout called Carrefour de la Colombe.

Barely 200m from Carrefour de la Colombe, the sightseer is likely to behold Carrefour de la Municipalité (Municipality Circle). Carrefour de la Municipalité is also called Carrefour de Trois Banques because three major banks’ regional headquarters surround this roundabout in whose centre a tower stands.

Epilogue

Although it wasn’t my first, this latest trip to Parakou further opened my eye. But, first of all, let me add that the programme, organised by the Association of Nigerian Women in Benin (ANWIB) that prompted this trip, enabled me to enjoy some glimpses of two very important public servants in Benin.

It was during that sojourn, made possible by Mrs. Cecilia Gbemisola Obisakin, wife of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy, Amb. Lawrence Obisakin; that we saw for the first time, Benin Republic’s Minister of Family and Social Affairs, Physically Challenged and Old People, Mrs. Marie Laurence Sranon Sossou.

Similarly, we got also images of the Mayor of Parakou, Hon. Soule Alagbe, who, it is worth pointing out; is Dean of the Corps of Mayors in the neighbouring country. In other words, Hon. Soule Alagbe is “the Mayor of all mayors”, and like Madame Ministre, Mrs. Marie Laurence Sranon Sossou, this mayor contributed to making the programme a resounding success.

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