My name is Stella and I’m a 24 year old Beninese queen living in Nantes (West of France) since 2011.
When I am walking through the streets of Nantes, gazing at the beautiful architecture and probably eating some French pastries (pain au chocolat is my faaaavorite), I feel at peace but slightly nostalgic of my homeland, Benin.
You are most likely wondering: WHAT THE HELL IS BENIN ?
Well, it’s a small West African country, formerly known as Danhomey, which literally translates as in the snake’s stomach in my native language. Pretty bad ass right ? It is said to be linked with snakes since pythons are sacred animals in our culture. Also, if you ask me, it looks like a raised fist. Pretty cool.
We are an old French colony so French is our first language. However, we have approximately 17 dialects. I was born in Cotonou, the economical capital. The south of the country (including Cotonou) is on the Atlantic coast, which means beautiful beaches as far as the eyes can see, but with strong currents. As a true African, I only go there to lazily lie under palm trees really far from the water. (Jk, I only go where I’m able to touch the bottom of the ocean because I’m scared as shit.) To end with the geography lesson, we are also bordered by Togo, Burkina-Faso, Niger and Nigeria.
I have lived there basically my whole life. I came to France at 18 to further my studies and am lucky enough to be able to go home every year. The number one thing I miss when I am away is my family. Jk, no its THE FOOD (sorry Mom).
Y’ALL. I don’t even know where to start. We eat a lot of sauces/soups : Gombo (my favorite), Man (a sauce made with spinach), Crincrin, which are eaten with corn dough called Wô in Fon, the signature dish of Benin. Also, fried deliciousness: fried plantains, fried yams, fried cassava, french fries. AND our typical breakfast is my ALL TIME favorite food : porridge + doughnuts. The porridge is made with different types of fermented cereals. Benin is basically carbs heaven!
Something that is really specific to Cotonou and that I am utterly proud of is the public transportation : the zemidjan or kèkènon . It’s basically a motorcyclist that takes you wherever you want to go. They are easily identifiable because they wear yellow shirts. To get one you only have to stand on the end of the road (or eventually wave) and they will come. After debating the price–especially if you are a tourist, don’ t let them fool you–you hop on it and go! I love them even if they don’t give a shit about the road safety rules. I mean nobody really cares in Benin, actually, but they are the worst. The more passengers they carry a day, the more money they make, so they have a tendency to speed…a lot. I remember my parents not allowing me to take them when I was younger
When I was asked to write this piece, I really didn’t know what to write about. I mean what makes Benin so different from France? Let me tell you.
First of all, when I come back I feel this inexplicable feeling of being at home, where I belong. Growing up in a mostly black community, I wasn’t really aware of the color of my skin until I came in France. In some places, I don’t feel welcome or even wanted. Facing racism is still something I don’t really know how to handle.
Also Benin is a really relaxed country about religion. I am Catholic but my friends and even family believe in a lot of different religions, and we all get along pretty well. For example, our public holidays are Christian, Muslims and Voodoo. Yes, voodoo, or if I should say animist. Benin is known to be the birthplace of voodoo and every 10th of January we celebrate it. Growing up in this religious melting pot gave me a lot of insight and realized that the fundamentals are the same. We are all trying to be the best version of ourselves and to love fellow beings. The presence of all these religions together does not exist in France.
Another thing, family is really important for us Beninese. Respecting the elderly is mandatory. For example, when I visit I have to greet ALL of my family members. (Mind you my mother has 11 brothers and sisters FROM THE SAME PARENTS. Kuddos to my Grandma that I didn’t have the pleasure to know.) During my visits, they never fail to ask me when am I getting married, while simultaneously telling me to focus on my studies rather than dating. They also don’t want me to marry a White man, but tell me that mixed babies would be the cutest. Since 2012, I’ve worn my hair natural, and every time they ask me why I don’t brush my hair. LMAO. They also force me to eat and also give me some to take away, while warning me about my weight gain (again). I can’t really say anything back so I just sit there and laugh. It’s all love though. I know that they love me and will always have my back no matter what happen.
In France, though, I realized that a lot of French put the elderly in retirement homes. My parents told my brothers and I that they will haunt us forever if we ever did that to them. In our culture the parents take care of their kids while they are young, and us kids have to return the favor when we are older.
Earlier this year, Julie, one of my French besties got an internship with the World Health Organization. Can you believe it was for four months in Cotonou?
When she first told me, I was really happy, but also a bit apprehensive. It was her first time in Africa. I’ve been telling her that Benin was the shit and even more. But what if she really disliked it? What if she got in an accident with the motorcyclist? What if she got bored? Most of my friend were in Europe or America, so I had no one to take care of her. I warned her about the spicy foods, the corruption and the laziness of my fellow Beninese people.
But as it turns out… SHE LOVED IT. Seeing my country through her eyes was truly an incomparable experience. She travelled to more than 12 cities, exploring every weekend. She met so amazing people, learned how to make a tom-tom, did some batik, partied it up, and even went on a safari! (I didn’t even know there was one.) She made me realize that I know so little about my own country and that it is so rich in experiences. I plan to re-discover my own country next time I go back home.
The photos of Benin in this article were taken by her. I hope you enjoyed them!
Follow Stella on Instagram at @therealstel