Living and getting around
Zemidjan or zem, i.e. a taxi-moped, is a common mode of transport in Benin. One ride on the Grand-Popo main road is about 200 CFA (0,3 euros).
There are plenty of taxi-brousses (“bush-taxis”) on the main road between Lomé and Cotonou and they stop at the Carrefour in Grand-Popo, too. A journey to Lomé or to Cotonou from Grand-Popo costs about 1500 CFA (2,3 euros).
Both the zems and the taxi-brousses are a handy way to get around, and there are plenty of them during the daylight hours. You should nevertheless pay attention when choosing your means of transportation: settle the price in advance, and check that both the vehicle and the driver are in a good condition before getting on, as sometimes you encounter for instance drunk driving. Paying attention pays off in the safety of the journey. There is no need to take unnecessary risks!
Villa Karo’s vehicles are not used during the hours of darkness. You should also avoid taxi-brousses after sunset when the visibility on the roads is poor.
To get to the neighbouring countries of Benin (such as Togo, Burkina Faso or Nigeria), you need a visa. You can get it at the border or in the consulate of the country in question (this can often turn out to be less costly). For this, you will need a few passport photos.
Banks, cashpoints and money exchange
The currency in Benin is the CFA (West African franc). 1 euro is worth approximately 650 CFAs, and 1000 CFAs are worth about 1,5 euros.
There are cash points for cash withdrawal in Cotonou and Lomé. Visa and Visa Electron cards usually work well in Benin (especially in Bank of Africa’s cashpoints), but MasterCards do not. One cannot generally pay with credit cards in (smaller) shops, restaurants or hotels.
You can exchange money in banks and in money exchange counters in Cotonou, Lomé or Comé (so far, there are no CFAs available in Finland or in France). There is a money exchange counter also at the airport in Cotonou.
The accountant of Villa Karo, Richard Tandjoma, has a strongbox in his office where cash can be stored if needed.
There are two major telecommunications operators in Benin: Moov and MTN. The prepaid sim cards and internet connections they offer are very popular. The sim cards with connection as well as credit for recharging can be found in any kiosk or small shop even in Grand-Popo. A sim card costs about 2500 CFA (about 4 euros) and it usually has 1000 CFA worth of credit pre-loaded.
It is relatively inexpensive to call to a Beninese telephone from Finland using Skype, and from Benin one can phone to Finland for approximately the same price (around 22 cents per minute).
The internet connection in Grand-Popo works with a usb stick that you can buy from any MTN or Moov shop in Cotonou, for instance. A monthly payment for internet is between 15 and 30 euros depending on the speed of the connection. In Villa Karo there is a general wi-fi internet in use for stipendiates.
Food and eating
Villa Karo offers its residents a breakfast and it is also possible to order lunch for 2000 CFA (approximately 3 euros). There is no kitchen for the residents, but a refrigerator, some cutlery, a coffee maker and a water-boiler are at their disposition. One can also buy bottled water, sodas and lemonades at the Villa Karo.
There are many different kinds and variedly priced restaurants in Grand-Popo. Being a coastal village, a fair amount of fish is eaten on a daily basis. The most typical dishes include fish (e.g. barracuda, sea bass, carp and sole) and a spicy tomato sauce with rice, couscous or fried potatoes. The price of a meal in a restaurant is around 5000 CFA (7,5 euros).
Local meat is also served in the restaurants, and for vegetarians there is often tomato sauce with onions, avocado paste, and local goat cheese (fromage peulh) or seitan available.
The street vendors sell mostly traditional foods such as dried fish, spicy chili sauce and different kinds of pâtes made of manioc and yams as well as spaghetti. The price of a meal bought from a street vendor is usually between 200 and 1000 CFA (around 0,3-1,5 euros).
There are also plenty of small shops or kiosks selling fruit (bananas, pineapples, mangoes), conserves, biscuits and baguettes in Grand Popo.
Local women sell food on the paved road in the village: beignets or doughnuts with zucchini, spaghetti dishes, soya brochettes and local goat cheese peulh. In nearby Comé the typical dishes are smoked snails, dried bananas and ablo.
Traditional Beninese dishes include, for instance, gboma (spinach, peulh cheese, dried fish, chili and tomatoes), dakoin (fried carp with spicy tomato sauce) and different kinds of pâtes or doughs: manioc, corn and yams (or fufu).
From markets and supermarkets in big cities, such as Lomé in Togo and Cotonou in Benin (e.g. Mayfair, Erevan), one can find all kinds products, even European ones; and closer to Grand-Popo, in Comé, there is a European style supermarket (Zenith).
Gifts and presents
In Benin, people are very friendly and hospitable and often invite new acquaintances to visit their homes. If you want to bring gifts, a good idea could be writing materials for the children, as they can be quite costly for the locals. Sometimes it is possible to find schoolbooks in the shops in Grand-Popo (e.g. La Gloire de Dieu in the Carrefour).
Sometimes at first encounters, or even after a short trip to a neighbouring village, you are greeted with “What did you bring me?” (« Qu’est-ce que tu m’as amené? »). It is often heard with the welcoming phrase (Bonne arrivée!) and can be considered as a part of the greeting.
In Benin, you can be invited to a wedding or a funeral. Guests going to these events usually gather money together to help cover the costs of organising the party. An average paid (for instance 40 000 CFA per month) Beninese person may give as much as 5000 CFA. It is also customary to have an outfit made of same fabric as the other guests for the occasion.
Beninese children have a habit of asking white adults for a gift (yovo, cadeau!), for instance a pen (bic) or a bottle of water. You may end up in an awkward situation distributing them liberally as there can be quite a lot of children, and they most likely will be around the following day, too. An empty bottle is a welcome gift to many; they are recycled and used again as containers for palm oil, flour or sodabi (a spirit made of palm wine), and can thus be resold.
It is easy to make friends in Benin and even complete strangers may ask for your telephone number or your e-mail address. You should always keep your promises and be as reciprocal as possible.
Language and culture
The official language in Benin is French, but not everyone speaks it. Other, more common languages are mina in Grand-Popo, ewe in Lomé, fon in Cotonou and in Abomey and yoruba in the areas east of Porto Novo. At least six different languages are spoken by the staff of Villa Karo, too. English is taking over also in Benin, particularly among younger people.
Beninese French has its particularities, and you can find out more about the different ways of using the language as well as some useful phrases in Villa Karo’s Akasia-blog (“Crash Courses in Beninese French”).
Benin is considered the motherland of the vodoun religion, and the tradition is still very much alive. Alongside vodoun, Christianity or Islam are practiced by many families.