Cotonou, Benin Report of what it's like to live there - 06/29/15
Personal Experiences from Cotonou, Benin
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. Port Moresby, Accra, Abidjan, Lome, Johannesburg, Antananarivo, Dakar.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Los Angeles. Flying through Paris - roughly 30 hours of travel.
3. How long have you lived here?
2 years (2012-2014)
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. Embassy construction.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We lived within walking distance to both the New Embassy Compound and the school. Our kids rode their bikes to school and my husband's commute was less than 10 minutes. Our house was huge and beautiful. People generally seemed pleased with their housing situations.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you buy most of your groceries at the large supermarkets, the cost is high. You can save a lot by buying all of your produce and basic supplies locally.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
If you are partial to certain toiletry brands, bring them with you.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are excellent restaurants (Indian, Asian, Lebenese, Russian, French, Italian) in Cotonou. They are moderate to expensive.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are a constant menace. We had our house exterminated before moving in and had no other insect problems.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
My husband's company sent snail mail by DHL weekly.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Depending on the job - roughly US$200-300/month for full time employmet, more for drivers, less for housekeepers/gardeners.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are several gyms available at affordable costs.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
We regularly used the ATMs with no problems, but the exchange fees add up. We were advised to only use credit cards at Erevan and the large hotels.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
French will make your life much easier, but people seem to manage all right without it.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Definitely. Cotonou lacks good infrastructure and can be challenging for even able bodied people to navigate.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There are big, relatively comfortable, safe, and reliable buses to surrounding cities (Lagos, Lome, Accra, etc), but not within Cotonou. The motorcycle taxis are everywhere, but you take your life into your own hands every time you use them.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
SUVs are good for the Route des Paches and day trips out of the city, but we happily drove a Toyota Avanza for two years.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, but 'high-speed' in the loosest most sense of the word and it is expensive.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
MTN and MOOV have the market wrapped up pretty tightly. Prepaid credit is sold everywhere.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No and there are reasonably good vets available who make house calls. Kennels were unnecessary as our guard cared for our dogs when we were away.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are very many volunteer opportunities - in orphanages, with battered women, the mentally ill, etc. Peace Corps would be an excellent source of information for people seeking to volunteer in the community.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
I believe Cotonou is one of the safest places we have ever lived. It's good to take the usual precautions and avoid walking alone in secluded areas, but even petty theft was pretty rare.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria is the big one and due to poor available healthcare, avoid any sort of traumatic injury!
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Moderate: Harmattan winds can bring some dust.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
30°C/90°F pretty much every day.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We arrived in Benin six months after Quality Schools International Benin had opened and didn't even know of its existence. Our children (1st, 3rd, 5th grade) spent 3 months at the English International School. We were unhappy there and transferred to QSI as soon as we were able. At the time, QSI had less than 30 students (preschool - grade 8). The class sizes were very small but the teachers were excellent and our children received individual attention. Our oldest had been struggling academically for years, but we are convinced that two years with almost 1:1 attention from an exceptional teacher has altered his academic trajectory in a very positive way. The school has a dynamic, charasmatic director, teachers who are thoroughly committed to their students and a close family community. I cannot say enough good things about QSI Benin.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I'm not aware of their policy on the matter, but QSI is still small and nimble enough to provide a great deal of variation in teaching for kids with moderate special needs.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are many local and French run daycare options and QSI offers preschool. The costs are reasonable to moderately high. Another affordable option is hiring a nanny.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are, but you have to look hard for them. There are equestrian, tennis and soccer clubs, but the teachers/coaches are usually French speakers.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small and there are certainly people there for the job only, but if you are open and adventurous and very flexible, you will have a wonderful time.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Restaurants, clubs, live music.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Excellent place for everyone.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Our gay friends were happy in Cotonou but homosexuality is not openly accepted in the local culture.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
West African culture remains patriarchal, so women are not always treated as equals - in both subtle and overt ways. This was mildly frustrating as a stay-at-home mom but could be much more so for working women.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Baby sea turtle release Grand Popo; Oidah - the Sacred Forest, Python Temple, Route des Ãˆclaves; Bab's Dock; Ganvie.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Take a canoe trip around Ganvie, day trip to Oidah, spend a weekend at Bab's Dock. There are many restaurants on the beach where you can rent a cabana and spend the day. In January go to Grand Popo for the annual baby sea turtle release.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Baskets and cloth, woven and batik.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
We loved Benin. People are friendly, the international community is great and the history and culture fascinating.
10. Can you save money?
That's entirely up to you and your spending habits, but it is definitely possible.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish we had known about QSI and avoided having to unnecessarily change schools.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Rigid outlook and expectation that you will not have regular power cuts and a generator that always works.
4. But don't forget your: