The next morning, we bid the nuns farewell and follow their advice to take the train to the capital, Cotonou (now Porto-Novo).
At the station we have the good fortune to meet a Peace Corps volunteer also headed to the capital. He proves to be an excellent guide. The train is slightly more comfortable than the taxi brousse as it slumbers along.
Each stop brings a swarm of men, women, and children, some as young as three or four, with wares to sell. “Madame, Madame,” they call. On the advice of our guide we don’t get off the train, but barter through the window.
Some children have handfuls of peanuts wrapped in scraps of plastic. These we buy. Others have fruit. We buy what can be peeled—bananas, oranges … The saddest of all are the children who have taken a square of plastic, filled it with water, and tied it to form a little ball. This we buy, with no intention of drinking, but our few coins will surely help a bit.
A couple of women have green bundles on straw trays that they carry on their heads.
“Oh, these are good,” says our guide. “They’re small birds about the size of a pigeon roasted in banana leaves. Want some?”
“Um … er … no thanks.” Suddenly we’re vegetarians.
“We wanted to go to Nigeria, too,” we say.
“Ah, that’s a no-go. The war you know.”
We do know. The Biafran war has raged for some time now.
Our guide laughs mirthlessly. “You won’t believe this. Aid groups back home sent over food. Stuff like strawberry pudding powder. What’s a starving African supposed to do with that? I ask you. I got a bunch of it on the black market. Figured maybe my money could help somehow. Then another group sent over a boat load of dried fish.”
“That makes much more sense,” we said.
“Sure, but they didn’t get clearance to enter the country so the fish rotted on the boat and had to be dumped into the ocean.”
A long silence follows, for what could one say?
Recommended reading: I Do Not Come to You by Chance – by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
To be continued