The blow of Harmattan

The rest period in Cotonou was a balm for my soul and for my body. The days of good food, beach, photography and especially the invaluable company of a great friend like Germano, were an essential part of my recovery process. Not only because of the imperative need to recover my energies and my health, but to prepare for this new stage in which I turn once more to remote and inhospitable regions. With this renewed spirit, I am heading directly north, on my way to the Sahel.

Soon after leaving the largest city in Benin, the country is transformed. The waters of the Atlantic that bathe the south coast and those of the multiple channels that penetrate inland forming floating villages, disappear as soon as 20 or 30 km away. Suddenly, the whole landscape around me is arid, discoloured but with a special tint, the one that Harmattan offers. It is December, dry season is in full swing, when this legendary Saharan wind blows from the heart of the desert thousands of miles from here, leaving all of West Africa covered in dust and sand. For 5 months, Harmattan blows clouding the horizon and staining the sky grey, but it also lowers the usually high temperatures of this region and attenuates the suffocating effect of moisture.

Water here, as in much of Africa, remains the most precious resource by which women and children, as usual, come and go through villages carrying heavy containers on their heads. Still, I don't see anyone complain. On the contrary, I look with admiration at the children gathered around the water pumps after school, helping each other to make lighter the heavy daily task of pumping water to take home. Even more admirable is seeing how they transform this into a task to play and have fun.

The rudimentary way of obtaining water is consistent with the simplicity of everything in this small country. Everything is simple in Benin. Its small cities, its towns, its villages, its schools and clinics and even the childish style of the posters that decorate the streets and businesses that now bring me so many memories from Burundi, lying right across the other side of the continent. From the colours and drawings of strong childish naivety to the writing, the slogans and the typeface, if I was told that they were made by elementary school students, I would not hesitate to believe it for a moment. It is in these posters where I find fun throughout the days pedaling through the monotonous and unattractive landscape of Benin.

Fortunately, to compensate for the lack of visual beauty of the landscape, as the days go by, the bright African smiles to which I was already so accustomed before Cotonou gradually return. For a moment while I was there, I feared they had disappeared altogether. The further I move north, not only people are much more affable and relaxed, but in the villages, I begin to come across a lot of people of ethnic groups and tribes that I did not expect to find so far south. The markets and villages on the sides of the road, vibrate with the hustle and bustle of the day's activity. Women dominate the trade, wrapped in exquisite dresses and coloured ornaments. Their faces and bodies are outlined by intricate designs of scarification, tattoos and makeup with the sole purpose of exalting their beauty. It is these kinds of encounters that revive my enthusiasm during long, grey and mostly boring days.

To be such a small and sparsely populated country I am surprised at the difficulty I have every afternoon to find a place to spend the night. For this or that reason, I find myself at the end of each day wandering around towns or small cities where nobody seems to want to give me a place or a space to hang my mosquito net like it is in the particular case of Savalou. There, after arriving tired and having tried unsuccessfully to stay in the places where I usually sleep, I find myself standing in front of the building where they finally accept me. Avid to rest, they welcome me in the morgue of Savalou, where I spend the night calm, knowing that it is likely that my roommates will not make much noise. Indeed, I sleep as if I was dead until I come back to life the morning after.

After arriving at the geographical half of Benin, I decide to cross into Togo, the neighbouring country, equally small and even less inhabited. Togo is so small and so flat that if I do not force myself to drastically reduce the number of daily kilometres that I usually ride (which are not so many anyway) I would reach the border of Burkina Faso in a day and a half and pass-through this country in the blink of an eye.

That's why I decide to take it easy, extending the days doing what I like to do the most, which is to stop in many villages, talk with people and go slowly trying to absorb as much as I can. The landscape of Togo is just as unattractive as that of Benin but the villages have a very beautiful picturesque air, formed of groups of mud huts and thatched roofs surrounded by tall yellow grasslands that contrast with the white and cloudy sky of Saharan particles.

Togolese people are definitely more pleasant and reflect much more joy on their faces. I do not know if in the south of the country they will be equally serious than in Benin but here in the north their kindness is immediately comforting. In the villages they invite me to stay and people always receive me with a smile and with interest to talk with me. Between talks and talks I spend my days talking with all the generations of each village. From playing with children, watching women harvest wheat and even talking with grandparents who may well be 100 years old, judging by the features traced on their skin.

Going between simple villages I spend calm and easy days until finally reaching the border with Burkina Faso, a country that I have been waiting for many years to visit and where I plan to go deep into the Sahel. Benin and Togo will be left behind as a pleasant but fleeting memory within this long African journey. I cannot say that they are countries that have left a strong mark on my heart but I will not say that they will die in oblivion. I have a modest but nice memory of both.