Cotonou, Benin Report of what it's like to live there

Personal Experiences from Cotonou, Benin

Cotonou, Benin 02/17/20

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This is our fifth post and our third in Africa.

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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?

USA. DC to Paris and then a long layover and Paris to Cotonou = roughly a full day.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Six months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

US government housing is very nice - larger and better quality than we expected. About half of homes have pools. Everyone has a nice yard. Commute is negligible - 5-10 minutes at most.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Erevan Supermarket has European imports at moderate to high prices. We can get things like corn flakes and brie cheese, but the costs add up. There is a small gluten-free section. Local produce is limited compared to the US and seasonal, but also very high quality. Local paper products are inexplicably expensive or poor.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

More spray bug spray and snack food. There's nothing that you truly can't get here, but it's nice to have recognized brands for cleaning products, kids snacks, and other things. We rely a lot on canned veggies and soup from home because they are so much less expensive.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Shamiana is the best indian restaurant on earth. Pizza, Lebanese, and acceptable Thai options deliver. For dining-in, lots of options, including exceptional Chinese, Russian, sea food, etc.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitos!

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We use the DPO. Local mail is not adequate. Many people have friends carry things on flights or buy space in people's suitcases to Paris.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Exceptional household help, especially child care. Most families employ at least 1 person, some have a nanny, cook/cleaner, driver, and gardener. A fair-to-high rate is 5,000 CFA per day -- right now that means our nanny gets about $250 USD a month for 50 hours a week.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are gyms but I've never been inside of them.

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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?

No. We use credit only at Erevan.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

French makes a huge difference. Out and about, you will not find english speakers except among the elites. Tutors are available. Speaking Fongbe, even a little, delights people but is not expected.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. It would not be impossible, but most buildings are not accessible. Many have one small step at the entrance that would be navigable for someone with a cane or walker, but not a wheelchair. I think wheelchair accessible bathrooms would be like unicorns.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are safe, easy, and pretty expensive. Locals use moto taxis that I do not consider safe.

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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?

Four-wheel drive with a high clearance if you plan to leave Cotonou or even get out of the main city center.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

MTN is pretty good. It tends to slow at the end of the month, especially around holidays.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

We use MTN.

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Pets:

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?

Beninese tend not to like dogs, although there are certainly people here who have them. No quarantines.

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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?

Local work would be very hard to find unless you are in the development sector.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Lots of opportunities to work with kids, art, and culture.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Pretty informal. Women dress more modestly than in the US (usually covering knees), but attitudes are pretty tolerant. Black pants and a shirt work for almost any occasion.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The political situation seems to be rocky and deteriorating.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Malaria is a threat here.

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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?

Air quality during the harmattan is truly terrible. I wear a mask and sleep next to a filter. I've been told that this year was the worst people remember, but everyone I know has had a respiratory or sinus infection.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

There's growing awareness about food allergies here. Peanuts and shellfish are common ingredients, although they can be avoided.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Not especially, although this is a small post and people get a bit stir crazy.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It's hot! Sometimes more and sometimes less, but hot.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

QSI has a moderately good reputation. The French school is known for being a pretty harsh environment. My son attends a smaller Montessori-like (French language) school that he loves.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

There are few resources available. For younger kids, Racines des Ailes does a good job.

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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?

Lots of preschool options.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, especially compared to other small posts in the region. Great swim coaches, music lessons, Parkour, etc.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Small. Morale is moderately good.

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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?

Game nights, happy hour, pool parties. Many people do formal dinner parties.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

There are very few expat singles here, but there is a lively social scene and a lot to do. Families with younger kids tend to be very happy here because of the great household help, outdoor space, and social options.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Not as much as elsewhere. White expats are welcome here and there is a long and rich history of descendants of slaves returning to Benin as tourists or to resettle. Women face prejudice but (generally) not hostility.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not too much, especially compared to the region. The only explicit biases I've heard are against Muslims.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Ouidah, learning about Voudou, Bab's Dock and natural environment. Being outside all the time in general.

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7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

This is not a shopping post, but people who are interested in art find their niches.

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8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

No traffic, lots of small adventures, great fruit, great family post.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Warm clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

Mosquito squatter.

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Cotonou, Benin 08/22/18

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I grew up overseas and served in six other posts before this one.

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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?

USA. About 20 hours with connection through Paris.

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3. How long have you lived here?

More than one year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing has improved substantially. Almost all housing is pretty big and decent quality with major upgrades, well over standard, even for African posts. Sometimes better looking inside than outside. Usually with big yards, sometimes with pools. Everything is around five minutes' commute from embassy or school. Housing also close to a lot of expat shopping, restaurants, bars, entertainment.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

A good number of stores with almost unlimited supplies, though somewhat expensive and occasionally supplies run low. Cotonou is lucky enough to have a huge hypermarket alongside embassy housing.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

None; this is a consumables post. Just get good info from those here for what to ship.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Restaurant & bar scene pretty good and slowly growing. Lots of Arabic, Indian, and French options but also a number of other options.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes are endemic. Bring or buy lots of repellent. Some houses have to be bombed occasionally for cockroaches but generally controls them reasonably well.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO available but a little slow.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Full range of good, reliable household help is very affordable. Cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, nannies, drivers are often typically retained because of their availability and affordability.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The embassy has a small, but adequate gym, half basketball court, running track, small soccer field, and swimming pool. There are also a small number of other gyms available for under US$100/month.

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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?

I only use cc at the hypermarket; never had a problem. Most of the other large stores selling foreign goods also take cards. Most of the rest of the economy is cash-only.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Relatively few; most everything in French or local languages.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Benin is working to be Bilingual by 2020. Although that may be a little ambitious, with Nigeria dominating next door, some people in the capital in shops, stores etc that expats frequent have a little English.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. There are few if any fully accessible facilities (although the new U.S. embassy is definitely fully-accessible).

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Motorbike taxis are off-limits to embassy personnel and not recommended. There are a number of well-marked, clean safe taxis that RSO approves. Buses etc absolutely not.

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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?

Best decent clearance, 4x4. Most main roads are pretty decent but to go to beaches and other distant locations best to have 4x4.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Embassy provides temporary internet as a courtesy for a few days/weeks until you obtain it. Monthly cost is around US$85-90/month (after tax refund). Speed is usually adequate but can be less great especially if you go over the 150GB limit.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Local provider. The embassy provides employees phones and prepaid chips can be easily obtained for others.

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Pets:

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?

Not too many vets but the few there are cater to expat community and make house calls on fairly short notice. About U.S. vet prices or less. The vet is pretty decent but have to double-check work.

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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?

At the moment, the embassy has EFM jobs unfilled. The embassy is fairly small and so EFM jobs are not unlimited. Outside opportunities fairly limited to American school and NGOs.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Quite a few very worthy volunteer opportunities with many NGOs and other local charities.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Formal dress to formal events such as diplomatic events. The embassy has varied dress code based on office.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

This is the safest AF post I've been at (I've lived in AF for many years), although you always have to be self-aware and not do anything that would make you an easy target. It's not recommended to go to the city beach, though suburban beaches are fine.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Local medical is very inadequate. The embassy clinic has a wonderful local doctor and U.S. nurse supported by RMO in Accra. Most serious, life-threatening conditions require medevac.

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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?

Decent except during 1-2 months of harmattan. Not much traffic in upscale section of town. No major industry.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

I'm not aware of any major concerns. I know of some families with members who have gluten intolerance who manage.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Quite hot all year round but less so in summer. Rains most of the year except winter and early spring. Light harmattan December - January.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

QSI runs a small but fairly good school K-8 and expanding. The British school offers higher classes. The French schools are in French.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Very few options available.

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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?

Yes. Good, reliable nannies are readily available for very affordable rates.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Reasonably sized but not huge. Large French, Lebanese, Indian communities.

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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?

There are few good standbys such as Code Bar and Sanctuary that are pretty good. For the more adventurous, many others abound as well. Lots of places for live music. Full American-quality movie theater runs the latest flicks for very low prices.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

All the above. Families with kids above grade 8 face schooling challenges.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

The government of Benin accredits LGBT couples and expat LGBT couples are widely accepted, but the local LGBT community is underground and not readily accepted.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Benin is extremely ethnically and religious diverse and tolerant. Gender equality is a different matter, with women struggling to establish true equality, although expat women are more accepted.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Being able to go to the beach nearly every weekend. Getting to know the expat community here.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

A number of decent resorts outside town. In the north, safaris.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Quite a few great works of art for those willing to pursue them. There's also a lot of less high-brow handicrafts, artwork.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Calm, peaceful, relatively safe. It's a five minute commute to work and around most restaurants, bars, etc. Pretty decent housing. Interesting work. Decent differential.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter gear.

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3. But don't forget your:

Umbrella, raincoat.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

The Vice-Roy of Ouidah (historical).

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5. Do you have any other comments?

Travel back to US or Europe a little expensive but have some airline competition that offers cheaper options. 2 R&Rs for 2 year tour or 3 for 3 year tour helps with that.

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Cotonou, Benin 01/28/17

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

I have lived in Europe and Asia for over 10 years.

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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?

USA.

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3. How long have you lived here?

3 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

USG housing is small to large houses, typically with a yard with a high wall around it. Housing quality varies ENORMOUSLY within the USG. Some people have seaside mansions with swimming pools and huge yards in gated communities, while others have tiny, poorly maintained houses closer to the center of the expat area. In general housing is poorly maintained, even dangerous at times.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Local goods are cheap, imports are expensive.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Chocolate, organic foods, whole grains.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is a good range of different types of restaurants available.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Huge swarms of mosquitoes. Cockroaches. Mice. Lizards.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Through USG.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Relatively inexpensive. Housekeepers, cooks, nannies, and drivers are all available.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I use cash.

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You need to speak French to live here.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

I think attitudes would not be a problem, but It could be limiting physically, as most places aren't accessible. But you could make it work.

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Transportation:

1. 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?

Something with high clearance, as the roads in the "downtown" are dirt - which turns to about 9 inches of thick mud, covered with several inches of water almost every day during the rainy season. (That's right, the same people who have the crappy houses also have to wade through mud to get in their front gates....)

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. One or two weeks to install.

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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?

You need to be able to speak French, in general.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Religious ones (Catholic).

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Casual for men.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

It's safe.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is very poor, and the US Embassy does not have a full medical unit.

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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?

No issues. except for the generator in my yard that blows exhaust directly into my bedroom window.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The French-speaking expat community is larger and more active.

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2. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I think it's fine, as long as you are not very open. There is prejudice and discrimination in Benin.

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3. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

The country is very strongly Catholic, and other religions (or atheism!) are not well tolerated.

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4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Getting to know local people, trying new foods.

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5. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Not really.

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6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

It's quiet and calm.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I wish I had known that USG management was in such bad shape. Housing, shipping, etc, etc, - all those things that make life a little easier (or just tolerable) - are badly mismanaged. Keep in mind that you will pretty much be on your own in terms of ensuring that your shipments arrive, getting things fixed in your house, negotiating with your landlord, etc. This is fine, but you should be prepared not to have the support a USG employee would have in other posts.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

No. I would move back to Cotonou, which I think is a nice little city, but only with a different organization, or if the USG management team completely changes.

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3. But don't forget your:

French language skills, full set of tools to fix your own house (if with USG).

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Cotonou, Benin 10/10/15

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Moscow, Hyderabad, Maputo, Bogota, Guatemala City, Port au Prince.

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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?

Washington DC, via Paris or Brussels. Overnight plus most of one day.

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3. How long have you lived here?

5 years. 2011-2015.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Government

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

U.S. Government housing: 15 minutes from the Embassy. Single family homes with walled yards. Some with swimming pool. The housing pool in Cotonou is the worst maintained I have ever experienced in more than 20 years with the Foreign Service. The "customer service" is atrocious (nonexistent). Constant blackouts, generators that don't work, continual house fires that aren't taken seriously, leaking water tanks, rat infestations, cockroaches, mosquitoes, water pipes leaking into closets and from ceilings, etc, etc, etc.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Expensive imports are available from France and a few other countries. Local foods are a limited range - except that there is a good variety of vegetables available in the local markets.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Canned mushrooms. Good chocolate.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are a variety of international options. About US$30 per person, average.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

My house and neighborhood were very severely infested with mosquitoes.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Available and not expensive.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There is a gym at the U.S. Embassy which is free for employees.

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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?

I have not. There are ATMs, but I don't know people who use them.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You need French in order to function. Other local languages are not necessary.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes, it is not very accessible. It would be nearly impossible if you were in a wheelchair.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

No.

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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?

One with high clearance. A SUV is necessary in some neighborhoods, and if you want to travel outside the capital.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

US$80.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

You can get one on the local market.

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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?

No.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Orphanages. Church related activities.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Western dress is fine, except that women should be slightly more modest (skirts to knees).

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No serious ones.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Almost no medical care available in country. Plan for medical evacuation if necessary. Malaria, parasites, digestive issues, infections.

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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?

Poor during some seasons. I purchased an air filter.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Warm. Two rainy seasons.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Small and low.

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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?

Eat dinner out or at each others' houses.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Yes to all, but you will have to make your own fun/activities no matter who you are.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

NO. Unless you want to hide who you are. People here are extremely prejudiced.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes. Extreme discrimination against women. Common sexual abuse of school age girls. Domestic violence is extremely common.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

None. I have not enjoyed living here.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Songhai organic farm in Porto Novo.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Mostly nice weather. Can grow a garden year round.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes, if in employer provided housing and if you eat on the local market and not from import stores.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

no.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

good shoes. They will be destroyed by flooding during the rainy seasons.

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3. But don't forget your:

mosquito repellant. sunglasses, French language skills.

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Cotonou, Benin 06/29/15

Background:

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.

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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.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years (2012-2014)

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy construction.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Daily Life:

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.

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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.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are several gyms available at affordable costs.

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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.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Can't say.

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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.

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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.

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Transportation:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pets:

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.

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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?

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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.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Expat Life:

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.

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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.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Excellent place for everyone.

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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.

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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.

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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 Èclaves; Bab's Dock; Ganvie.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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10. Can you save money?

That's entirely up to you and your spending habits, but it is definitely possible.

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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.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely.

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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.

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4. But don't forget your:

Flexibility.

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Cotonou, Benin 08/23/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Yes.

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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?

East coast U.S.

There was only 1 European-bound flight out a day, and they were overnight flights via Brussels and AirFrance. The Brussels flight left earlier but sits for a few hours in Abidjan before continuing to Brussels. The AirFrance flight is direct but leaves around midnight and it's usually packed. Both get you into Europe early in the morning. U.S.-bound flights are likewise 5-8 hours depending on destination.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years, 2011 - 2013.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Government work.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Haie Vive and Cocotie neighborhoods have most of the nice expat housing in the west of the city; I cannot speak for other areas. Commutes are short. There are new neighborhoods/developments sprouting up, but they're not within walking distance of anything of note. However, they have much nicer housing than Haie Vive, which is largely made up of older housing.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Availability of most non-standard items can be spotty. For instance, you can get soy milk at Erevan, but if you need it and it's there, you better buy a lot because there's no telling when it will be re-stocked.

If there are particular products you like, and you have ways to get them from outside the country, you should stock up early.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

More board games. If you work for the U.S. Embassy, you'll have pouch access (and maybe DPO in the future), so if you discover something you're missing, you'll be able to get it...eventually.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

The Haie Vive neighborhood has some, as does the "downtown" area. However, "decent" is a subjective term in this case. While you can get Indian, Thai, and a few other kinds of cuisine, be prepared to have mild gastrointestinal issues throughout your entire time here - there's no avoiding it.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes. Lots of them. For a long while I was bitten fairly frequently, but I actually took my malaria meds pretty regularly, so I never contracted anything.

There will also be ants in your house, without fail. Probably the occasional cockroach, too. And since most of the housing has excessively shoddy construction, you won't be keeping them out.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

USG diplomatic pouch. It's slow, so don't plan on getting anything quickly (2-4 weeks). Mail access for the general public is generally dreadful and expensive; UPS and DHL operate here, but they can be prohibitively expensive.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Available, cheap, and generally trustworthy. Competency can be an issue at times.

I paid US$160/mo for someone to work for me 5 days a week, and he did everything (cook, clean, laundry, errands).

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

In the private sector, yes, but they're generally expensive and limited in equipment offerings.

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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?

I did not use my plastic for the two years I was there, but I've heard of people who did.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You can probably make it through shopping at the grocery store without any French - god knows the Nigerians who've lived here for years without learning a word of French get by somehow. Restaurants will be a bit more difficult.

It all depends on how much you'll need to do yourself.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Folks with significant physical disabilities need not apply, especially if that disability impairs their ability to walk without assistance.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

I'm not aware of any trains functioning in the country. There are intracity buses of varying quality. There are taxis/cans as well, but they're of generally dreadful quality. And break down a lot. And make you and all of your possessions smell of gasoline. And are packed to at least 2x normal capacity. But they're all cheap for someone making a western salary.

Just use your own vehicle.

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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?

Something with good ground clearance and a strong suspension. Four wheel drive is required if you plan on bringing a heavier vehicle; I had a Toyota Rav4 that was FWD, any I never got stuck, while someone with a larger SUV did once in deep sand. And unless you're a hermit, you will find yourself driving outside of the city (to the beaches, for instance) where such a vehicle is a necessity...unless you don't mind wrecking your undercarriage.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Technically yes, but it's high-speed for Benin. I had a 1mb DSL line which cost US$160/mo. I could maybe stream things late at night. The ping will be bad (usually 150-250+ ms), and you will experience frequent packet loss. Expect to spend lots of time buffering low-quality streams.

I understand there are satellite options as well, which can only be worse. There's also a "wireless" internet option (probably using some sort of fob), but I have no direct knowledge of its performance.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

USG direct hires are issued phones. The work...more or less. Plans are cheap. Smartphones work here, including live streaming.

Bring something unlocked if you like, otherwise plan on picking up something cheap and disposable.

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Pets:

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?

Not that I am aware of. There are some decent local vets, but their capabilities will be limited.

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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?

Extremely limited - you should not/not go to Benin without a job in-hand.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Plenty, but still not exactly easy to avail oneself of.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

This will depend on your place of work. I wore a suit every day.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Niger and Nigeria present all sorts of regional concerns, but there aren't many concerns with day-to-day living. This is especially true if you work for a foreign government or NGO, since you'll have a car - a lot of the crime is petty robbery, and largely victimizes people riding motos at night.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Malaria, yellow fever, and now apparently ebola. Medical care is laughable - anything even close to serious will require a medevac to receive proper treatment.

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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, perhaps? It can be pretty dusty, and there's not exactly anything like the EPA here to enforce emission standards.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

See above. It alternates between dry heat, sweltering heat, sticky humid heat, and monsoons.

It's not as hot during dust season, but then there's all that dust.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are French, Indian, American, English, and Nigerian international schools. I don't have kids, so I cannot speak to quality, but I understand the French school is reputable, while the English school may have shoddy management.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Probably none? Folks with disabilities here have a very hard time.

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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 a few, but I have no direct knowledge of them.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Not that I am immediately aware of.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Overall small, with the anglophone portion being miniscule - mostly the U.S. Embassy, Peace Corps, and a few other random folks. Morale varies greatly from person to person, depending on the social circles that are present at any particular time, as people come and go fairly regularly.

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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?

Things at the house, restaurants, the beach...that's pretty much it. A lot of people drink a lot, for lack of anything else to do.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

If you're a strong French speaker, and perhaps wouldn't be so concerned with some of the morally-questionable folks in the French expat community - possibly.

However, if your primary language is English, or if hanging out at loud francophone parties with a lot of people smoking pot isn't an option for you - not so good.

But - if you're a couple who generally prefers to stay at home, you might be OK.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

It's not the worst, but don't plan on participating in any pride parades. The north of the country is predominately Muslim, while the south is Christian, and people take their religion very seriously in Benin. However, I've seen a few instances of like-minded folks being able to find each other here.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Racial - generally, no. If you're Caucasian or are otherwise clearly a foreigner, you'll be given a fair amount of deference.
Religious - no. Folks tend to be able to get along, whether they are Muslim, Christian, or animist.
Gender - yup. If you're a woman, especially a Caucasian, be prepared to receive a lot of verbal sexual harassment. This is less of an issue if you're working for the U.S. Embassy, or are otherwise not having to deal extensively with the general populace. However, if you're going to be a Peace Corps volunteer, and you'll have to take mototaxis a lot, plan on getting a lot of unwanted marriage proposals.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

...saving money? I found Benin itself to be exceedingly forgettable.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Some of the beach restaurants are passable, and some hotels have a pool. The Livingstone, a restaurant in the Haie Vive neighborhood is an expat standby. However, be prepared to make a lot of your own fun at home.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

The artisan markets or traveling vendors have all sorts of little nicknacks, but they are definitely not unique.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Benin was scant infrastructure, so casual touring doesn't really exist so much. The local culture can also be pretty difficult to get at if there's even anything of note to see - the slave trade, and then colonialism, really stunted cultural growth in this country.

The weather is pretty different from the U.S. though you have four seasons - hot season, little rainy season, short hot season, and dust (harmattan) season. Though at night, you can usually count on the temperature dropping to a cool 85F after midnight.

One plus is the ability to save money - there's not much to spend it on locally even if you regularly blow cash at Erevan (the only real Western-style grocery store in the country) on things like Magnum ice cream bars.

There's also a fair degree of freedom - crime is normally not an issue for an expat, the cops will not bother you if you have diplomatic/NGO plates (rather, they'll salute you). However, good luck finding something to do with this freedom.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes, but only if you can resist flying out of the country at every opportunity - flights are expensive.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Not all of Africa is equal - Benin doesn't have the rich culture of, say, South Africa or Kenya. It's really quite sad.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but only for professional reasons. As someone who loves hockey, skiing, and the internet, Benin is quite a sad place.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Hulu or Netflix streaming accounts, unless you're an insomniac watching them at 2 in the morning.

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4. But don't forget your:

Books, boardgames, or booze. You can bring movies and such as well, but hopefully you have equipment to properly protect your TV from the horrendous power supply - some people have lost all sorts of things to Benin's dirty and insufficient power.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Out of Africa
...wait, that's east Africa.

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

I'm not sure anyone has ever written a book of note about Benin, besides the obligatory tourist books.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Some folks had a great time, others were absolutely miserable. Most folks I know just dealt with having to be in Benin for work, and were happy to leave once their assignments were up. The only folks I know who would even consider going back voluntarily are Peace Corps volunteers, who have a vastly difference experience during their time in the country.

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Cotonou, Benin 07/26/13

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Yes.

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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?

Grand Rapids, Michigan. It generally takes at least 24 hours to fly home. Paris is the first stop; then Atlanta or Detroit; then Grand Rapids.

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3. How long have you lived here?

1 year and 9 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Trailing spouse of a Foreign Service Officer.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Commute time to the Embassy is fantastic--about a ten-minute drive at the longest. Housing here was great. More than enough space. We'll probably miss our home the most.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Erevan is the big supermarket here: you can buy clothes, toys, school/working supplies right along with your groceries. There's even a bookstore and clothing store inside. Kinda feels like you're stepping into America (add to the scene Katie Perry, Usher, and Rhianna blaring from the speakers). Many items here are costly (soda, alcohol, cheese, frozen meats). Other smaller stores carry similar items for much cheaper.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

More soda, caffeine addict that I am. Soda here is expensive. Salsa/dips (not readily available here). Bring tortillas if you like Mexican food (you'll have to make your own, as Cotonou does not boast Mexican food).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

We loved the Indian food here. You'll probably spend anywhere from US$10-$15 for a meal that is totally worth every penny. The pizza here is very good, if you like your pizza more on the thin side (price is about US$10-15 per pizza). The fish is fabulous.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

LOTS of insect problems, from our experience: ants, mosquitoes, cockroaches. Thankfully, the locals sell mosquito "zappers". They reduce the annoyance of at least the mosquitoes.

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Daily Life:

1. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Readily available and cheap. Make sure you sit down with help before hiring them, however. Set down expectations from the get-go. Explain the way you like things cleaned (and the way you DON'T like things cleaned). Go through even the elementary expectations (e.g. "I would like you to clean the toilets", "I don't want the clean rags mixed with the dirty rags", "Don't mix bleach with these products", etc.). We didn't and our housekeeper, though trustworthy, has proven to be a surfacey cleaner.

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2. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes. Two treadmills, two ellipticals, two bikes, weight machines, and many free weights are available at the Embassy gym. There's another gym at the edge of town that is small but very nice and clean. I believe you'll have to fork out US$80 a month for it though.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

The ATM machine has malfunctioned more than once, which can be a pain when you need to get money out. I'd stick with the Embassy service just in case this is still a hassle in years to come.

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4. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Know as much French as you can before coming here. It will make your life much easier. Just being able to read billboards (95% of which are written in French) is one less headache. There are exceptions, though! Some people who have lived here didn't give a damn about learning French and got along with life just fine.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

A BIG complaint here: no taxis are available. Moto taxis, yes. But there have been accidents there and I've heard more bad than good about the drivers.

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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?

I wouldn't recommend a car--the roads here can get really beaten up and usually the locals' attempt at fixing them (e.g. throwing rocks in potholes) only makes them worse. Our SUV has worked fine here though. Another sidenote: car repair--say you need a tire fixed--is ridiculously cheap (money-wise, not quality-wise).

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Pets:

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.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

NO. There are vets but not of U.S. caliber.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No. So long as you use common sense, you will be fine. Don't walk outside in the dark: a teacher here was robbed recently while walking to school at 5:45 a.m.)

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2. 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?

Good. No complaints.

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3. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Pretty consistent. Hot: don't bring your hoodies and gloves. Occasionally the heat can be almost unbearable, but for the most part, it's just an eternal 80F degree summer. The evenings are pleasant, especially if the wind picks up. The rainy seasons bring a nice reprieve.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I worked for QSI, so obviously I have to vouch for them! The student body is rather small as of right now (30-40some kids), but it has only been up and running for a year now. The teachers there are incredibly passionate about education and about working on a one-on-one basis with students. The library (for such a small school) is quite large as well.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Small, as it IS a small post. But if you connect with even a few people, you can be happy. You'll just see them a lot, probably at the same restaurant, at the same time every week. That's kind of how life goes here. And it can be a very good thing.

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2. Morale among expats:

Depends on the person and also on the circumstances. Generally high, after you get past the initial culture shock. Getting away on a vacation is essential 2-3 times per year, I would say.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Totally depends on the family (or person). If you enjoy quiet and weekends at home, you will fare well here. If you don't, who knows, you just might change, as the country/pace of life here certainly isn't going to change. I have changed--from initially hating Cotonou to now enjoying it.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Yes.

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5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

I taught at QSI and loved getting to know the kids and coworkers there. I ate delicious fish and veggies for less than US$10 a plate right next to the ocean (Restaurant Wado). I got to know some amazing people over dinners and drinks, because there's not much else to do here other than eat and drink. Our home was like a mansion and yet always felt, well, homely: a wonderful perk for a post where we spent so much time inside.

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6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You can learn to appreciate a whole different pace of life (if you're used to the American, go-go-go culture). Locals here are very carefree and take their time completing their daily tasks. Usually this is refreshing; occasionally, when you have a problem that needs to be fixed, it can be maddening. If you are a homebody, you will absolutely love this post.

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7. Can you save money?

Oh yes. (The good side of not having much to do.)

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

YES. There's something oddly irresistible about this city once you make it your home.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Expectations. Benin will probably be unlike anything you've experienced. And that might be really hard at first. But in time, you can grow to love it.

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Cotonou, Benin 05/21/13

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

First expat experience.

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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?

Travel time is about six hours to Europe and another eight hours to DC. Connect through Paris (Air France/Delta) or Brussels (Air Brussels/United).

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. government employee.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The embassy still has a few houses in the Haie Vive neighborhood, which traditionally is where expats have lived. These houses tend to be smaller and older, with no (or very small) yards. However, they are in walking distance to many restaurants, clubs, grocery stores, etc. It seems the embassy is shifting its housing stock to other developments with bigger and nicer homes featuring large yards and sometimes swimming pools. However, these new developments feel like American suburbia and aren't walkable to anything. I don't think anyone in the embassy community has more than a 15-minute commute. A few people can walk to work. Commute times will get even shorter with the move to the NEC in 2015.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

If you eat like a local, you can eat very cheaply. If you want to eat like you would in the U.S., it will cost you. Decent chicken and beef are available at the nicer grocery stores, but more expensive than back home. Seafood at the local fish market is comparable to U.S. prices, maybe slightly cheaper. Fruits and veggies are, however, very affordable. The most delicious pineapple you will ever eat costs about 30 cents, for instance. Mangos and avocados are also great. You can get a few American brands if you are willing to pay ($20 for a box of Special K, for instance), but you can find French equivalents for much cheaper prices. Still, expect to spend more on groceries than you would back home unless you only eat local cuisine.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

I wish I would have brought a lot more of my own furniture and decorative items. If I had known how much time I would be spending at home, I would have made more of an effort to make it more comfortable. Also, anything that would help with at-home entertaining.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are no American chains. There is one South African fast-food chain (Steers) which is nothing to write home about. There are a number of decent sit-down restaurants at DC prices ($10-$15 per meal). You can find very good Indian, Thai, Italian/pizza, seafood, and Lebanese cuisine. There is also one mediocre and expensive sushi restaurant, a few Chinese restaurants, a Russian restaurant, etc. The dining options, although they get a little tired after a while, are significantly better than I expected.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes are everywhere. Bring bug spray, and take your malaria meds. Ants and lizards can also be pesky and turn up in your house often.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Through the embassy. Pouch takes 2-3 weeks. DPO is apparently coming soon, but it's not available yet.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Readily available and cheap; anywhere from about $120/month to $220/month for full-time work, depending on the service. Many expat families hire nannies, cooks, gardeners, housekeepers, drivers, etc.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The embassy has a gym, and there are a few others around town that seem decent for about DC prices. As of recently there are Zumba classes.

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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?

I try to get money at the embassy but have had no issues with local ATMs the several times I've used them. There are a few around town. I don't think I've ever used a credit card. There are maybe one or two places that might take them. This is really a cash economy.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

None that I am aware of.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

There are no English'language newspapers. You can get an English-language satellite package out of South Africa, with some American channels, for anywhere from about $20 to $150/month, depending on the package.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

It would be very difficult to have an enjoyable time here with no (or limited) French, but some embassy spouses have managed. There are a few restaurants and stores where you can get by with English. However, even with decent language skills it's quite hard to integrate into local and expat circles made up of native French speakers.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

A lot. This is not a workable post for someone with physical disabilities.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Public transport is primarily motorcycle taxis, which are not forbidden but are highly discouraged by the embassy's security team. There are coach buses that travel outside of town. Peace Corps volunteers use both of these options, but embassy folks who have their own cars tend not to. They are cheap but not at all comfortable or safe.

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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?

Most expats drive SUVs with high clearance and 4-wheel drive. This is necessary if you plan on going out of town or to the beach, or driving to certain parts of town during the rainy season.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

This varies. Neighborhoods without landlines are stuck with satellite internet. I pay $200/month for a connection that is too slow to stream video and only sometimes is good enough to use Skype. Others in neighborhoods with landlines pay a little less for much higher-speed connections that allow video streaming.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

The embassy issues cell phones and BlackBerries to all direct hires. Family members can sign up for local plans when they get here. It is possible to use an iPhone, for those who care about that.

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Pets:

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.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are a few local and European vets that are fine for routine issues. There is no emergency or extensive pet care, though.

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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?

On the local economy, no. However, there are some jobs for family members at the embassy, and a few family members have been able to work at international schools or nonprofits. There might be opportunities if you're flexible and patient, but I wouldn't count on it.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Beninese tend to dress much more formally than American officers. A little nicer than business casual is passable for everyday work at the embassy; for meetings outside the embassy, suits are expected.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

There have been a few armed robbery reports from expats during my time here, but they always happen very late at night. If you use good judgment, you don't have anything to worry about. Personally, I've never felt unsafe.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Lots of health concerns. My family had one major medical issue that was misdiagnosed locally, and that only turned out okay because we insisted on a second opinion by an American doctor. We were prepared to leave post at our own expense, but luckily were able (ultimately) to get a medevac. For other medical issues I've found myself relying on Dr. Google because I don't have faith in the care and advice I get locally. The way it's been explained to me is that, culturally, doctors are trained to manage patients by not giving them complete information, telling them everything is alright even when it isn't, and just going ahead and treating problems without discussing the reality of the situation with the patient. From my American perspective, this is a troublesome approach, although admittedly there are some expats who don't mind it. Personally, I was very uncomfortable having young children at this post due to both this approach and the lack of emergency medical options (no ambulances, no emergency rooms, etc.).

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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?

Air quality is fine. Expats run and bike outdoors.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It's 80 degrees pretty much year-round, with two rainy seasons that cool things down slightly.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I don't have any personal experience, but parents of elementary-school-aged children seem happy with American-run QSI, which opened in 2012. I would not bring a middle-school or high-school student here unless they spoke fluent French, or unless another school option become available.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I can't say for sure, but I would guess very little. I would think long and hard before bringing a kid with special needs here.

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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?

Nannies are affordable (about $200/month) and generally of good quality. There are a number of Francophone preschools that offer half-day programs for about the same price; I've heard mixed reviews.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Not that I know of.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Small, and the Anglophone expat community is tiny.

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2. Morale among expats:

Morale varies widely depending on individual situations. If you value big houses and short commutes, and if you are perfectly happy hanging out at home or going to the pool or the beach, you will likely be happy here. If you are looking for a lively city with things to do, this will likely be a challenging post for you. Also, as at any small post, morale changes significantly depending on who is here at any given time.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Again, the expat scene tends to be largely Francophone, which is tricky if you don't have the French skills or don't necessarily want to use them during your time off work. Within the American community there is a lot of at-home entertaining. Younger people sometimes break into the Peace Corps social scene.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

The lack of things to do and the small expat community make this a challenging post for singles, although I've seen some have good experiences by breaking into the Peace Corps and/or the Francophone expat scenes. Same with couples. There are some clubs and music venues; there's a lot of entertaining at home. Families that value spending quality time together at home or at the beach seem happiest here, with the exception of those (especially with very young children) who worry about the lack of quality medical care. Like in any small post, things change significantly with each transfer season, but currently there are lots of babies, toddlers, and elementary-school kids in the embassy community, and I would guess that families would be much happier here than singles or couples. However, this isn't a perfect family post, as there are no public parks, playgrounds, or activities for kids. You really have to make your own fun.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I've known gay and lesbian expats who have had perfectly fine experiences here. I haven't heard of any outright discrimination, but at the same time there is no active gay and lesbian community to my knowledge, so it depends what you're looking for.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not that I've noticed.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The beach (although note that the undertow is strong, so swimming can be dangerous), seafood at beachfront restaurants, and Bab's Dock, a pleasant day resort on a lagoon accessible only by boat.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

There's not a whole lot to do. There's no mall, no movie theatre, and no public parks. People spend a lot of time at the beach, although the undertow is dangerous, so most don't swim. A few local hotels have decent swimming pools. One hotel has tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course. People gather at restaurants and other people's homes. Some trek up north to the game park for a long weekend, but you need to adjust your expectations of an African safari - this is not Kenya. There are a few comfortable (but not luxurious) beach hotels within a two- or three-hour drive. Ouidah, about an hour away, has some sites and museums that tell of the region's slave trade history. You can take a boat to visit Ganvie, a village on stilts. As of recently, there is a direct flight to South Africa, so people are starting to go there for vacation---but it's expensive, around $1,000 roundtrip.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

I keep meaning to buy a nice souvenir to remember my time here, but I haven't found anything I really like yet, if that tells you anything. A lot of people buy large wooden sculptures of animals. Paintings, batiks, and other local handicrafts can be found at the artisan market in Cotonou. Many buy colorful local fabrics and hire tailors to make clothes.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

If you're looking for a safe place where you'll have a short commute and be able to spend a lot of time at home with your family, this could be a great option. It's politically stable. Crime isn't really an issue. The weather is comfortable. The workload is manageable. Locally-employed staff members are generally kind and competent.

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11. Can you save money?

If you don't travel outside of the country too often beyond your R&R: absolutely.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

I would not, mostly because of the medical situation, but also because of the isolation due to a lack of places to go around town and the difficulty/expense of travelling both locally or internationally. That being said, others I know would come back in a heartbeat. This could be a fine post, depending on your priorities.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Bring it all. You'll have plenty of space to store it in your house.

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3. But don't forget your:

DVD collection (or books, or puzzles, or whatever else keeps you entertained at home).

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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Cotonou, Benin 03/02/13

Background:

1. Your reason for living this city (e.g. corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.):

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2. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

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3. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

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4. 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?

West Coast, about 22 hours through Paris or Brussels.

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5. 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?

West Coast, about 22 hours through Paris or Brussels.

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6. How long have you lived here?

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7. How long have you lived here?

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8. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Government and has been living in Cotonou for one year, a first expat experience.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Great houses, short commute times.

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2. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Great houses, short commute times.

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3. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Expensive, more than 25% more than D.C. for Western products. French products are common here. U.S. products are not.

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4. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Expensive, more than 25% more than D.C. for Western products. French products are common here. U.S. products are not.

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5. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

American food products. While there are plenty of European groceries here, if you want Cheetos, or any other American products, you'll have to bring them yourself.

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6. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

American food products. While there are plenty of European groceries here, if you want Cheetos, or any other American products, you'll have to bring them yourself.

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7. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Lots of restaurants here with D.C. prices.

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8. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Lots of restaurants here with D.C. prices.

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9. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Roaches and mosquitoes everywhere.

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10. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Roaches and mosquitoes everywhere.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Local mail does work actually, but I've only used it once.

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2. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Local mail does work actually, but I've only used it once.

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3. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Very cheap. $150-180 per month for full-time help.

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4. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Very cheap. $150-180 per month for full-time help.

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5. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, there are several gym options, none as good as in the U.S., but not bad. Free weights, fitness classes, its all available but you will pay for it. The U.S. Embassy gym is surprisingly well equipped for such a small post.

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6. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, there are several gym options, none as good as in the U.S., but not bad. Free weights, fitness classes, its all available but you will pay for it. The U.S. Embassy gym is surprisingly well equipped for such a small post.

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7. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

It's a cash economy. But of course there are ATM's here, and you can use them.

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8. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

It's a cash economy. But of course there are ATM's here, and you can use them.

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9. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Almost every religious denomination is here, but I don't know of any English-language services. Again, this is a very French-speaking country.

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10. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Almost every religious denomination is here, but I don't know of any English-language services. Again, this is a very French-speaking country.

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11. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

DSTV; various prices with the most complete Sat TV package around $100 per month.

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12. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

DSTV; various prices with the most complete Sat TV package around $100 per month.

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13. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

This is a French-speaking country. You can "get around" without it, but you can't integrate.

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14. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

This is a French-speaking country. You can "get around" without it, but you can't integrate.

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15. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Plenty.

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16. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Plenty.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Affordable? Yes. Available at a standard of quality that you want to use? No.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Affordable? Yes. Available at a standard of quality that you want to use? No.

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3. 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?

A high-clearance vehicle is a must.

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4. 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?

A high-clearance vehicle is a must.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Medium speed available for more than $150 per month.

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2. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Medium speed available for more than $150 per month.

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3. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Get one when you get in country.

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4. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Get one when you get in country.

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Pets:

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?

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2. 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?

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3. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

No.

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4. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

No.

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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?

I think there are opportunities, but the pay is not great, and fluent or semi-fluent French would likely be a requirement.

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2. 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?

I think there are opportunities, but the pay is not great, and fluent or semi-fluent French would likely be a requirement.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Casual.

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4. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Casual.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Nothing major.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Nothing major.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is available locally, but no where near Western quality.

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4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is available locally, but no where near Western quality.

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5. 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?

Good.

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6. 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?

Good.

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7. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot, humid, and dry. Hot, humid, and rainy.

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8. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot, humid, and dry. Hot, humid, and rainy.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

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2. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

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3. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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4. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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5. 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?

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6. 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?

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7. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Not sure, but I would assume yes. Especially at the French School, which is large.

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8. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Not sure, but I would assume yes. Especially at the French School, which is large.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

There are more than 3000 French citizens in Benin, and a smattering of other nationalities. Native Anglophones are rare, but you can find some Northern Europeans that speak very fluent English.

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2. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

There are more than 3000 French citizens in Benin, and a smattering of other nationalities. Native Anglophones are rare, but you can find some Northern Europeans that speak very fluent English.

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3. Morale among expats:

That 100% depends on the person. If you are here with family, and if you are content to stay home with them, you will be fine. If you like the kind of things that Benin has to offer -- sports, water, sun, and a French-speaking expat scene, then you also will be fine here. If neither of the above scenarios fits your personality or skill set, you're not likely to be happy in Benin (although some have done it). Whoever you are, I think it is critical to travel out of country to recharge at least 2-3 times per year.

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4. Morale among expats:

That 100% depends on the person. If you are here with family, and if you are content to stay home with them, you will be fine. If you like the kind of things that Benin has to offer -- sports, water, sun, and a French-speaking expat scene, then you also will be fine here. If neither of the above scenarios fits your personality or skill set, you're not likely to be happy in Benin (although some have done it). Whoever you are, I think it is critical to travel out of country to recharge at least 2-3 times per year.

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5. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There is a surprisingly robust expat social scene in Benin, among both married folks and singles. But again, you will find significant barriers to integration without solid French. Among the anglophones, there is a large Peace Corps presence in Benin.

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6. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There is a surprisingly robust expat social scene in Benin, among both married folks and singles. But again, you will find significant barriers to integration without solid French. Among the anglophones, there is a large Peace Corps presence in Benin.

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7. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It is probably best for young families but not easy for anyone who doesn't speak French. There are 3000 French people here, and 9 million Beninois. If you want to socialize with the vast majority of them, you will need strong French. For singles, there's a fun but pretty small scene of about 100-150 mostly French-speaking singles that hang out at the same bars, restaurants, and house parties. But again, French is the key to unlocking this group.

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8. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It is probably best for young families but not easy for anyone who doesn't speak French. There are 3000 French people here, and 9 million Beninois. If you want to socialize with the vast majority of them, you will need strong French. For singles, there's a fun but pretty small scene of about 100-150 mostly French-speaking singles that hang out at the same bars, restaurants, and house parties. But again, French is the key to unlocking this group.

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9. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I doubt that it is ideal, just because the expat social scene is so small to begin with, but there were gay expats here in the past and they managed to create a pretty active social life for themselves.

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10. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I doubt that it is ideal, just because the expat social scene is so small to begin with, but there were gay expats here in the past and they managed to create a pretty active social life for themselves.

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11. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not as it affects expats.

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12. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not as it affects expats.

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13. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Making friends with the international community, playing tennis at one of the two tennis clubs, playing rugby with the French rugby team, hanging out at the hotel pools and beaches with friends.

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14. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Making friends with the international community, playing tennis at one of the two tennis clubs, playing rugby with the French rugby team, hanging out at the hotel pools and beaches with friends.

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15. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Sports at the rec clubs, restaurants, expat house parties, beach, pool, lake. Rinse and repeat.

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16. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Sports at the rec clubs, restaurants, expat house parties, beach, pool, lake. Rinse and repeat.

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17. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Some local African Art. Nothing that's going to change your life, but some cool little trinkets for sure.

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18. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Some local African Art. Nothing that's going to change your life, but some cool little trinkets for sure.

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19. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

It is relatively safe, uncomplicated, good traffic, with short commutes to work and your social life.

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20. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

It is relatively safe, uncomplicated, good traffic, with short commutes to work and your social life.

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21. Can you save money?

Absolutely, so long as you are not constantly traveling out of country, which is expensive.

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22. Can you save money?

Absolutely, so long as you are not constantly traveling out of country, which is expensive.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. My first contact with African culture has been interesting, and I've really enjoyed integrating into the European expat social scene here.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. My first contact with African culture has been interesting, and I've really enjoyed integrating into the European expat social scene here.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Warm clothes. It is always warm and humid here.

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4. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Warm clothes. It is always warm and humid here.

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5. But don't forget your:

Citronella candles. The mosquitoes never let up.

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6. But don't forget your:

Citronella candles. The mosquitoes never let up.

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7. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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8. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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9. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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10. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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11. Do you have any other comments?

If you like warm weather, water, sports, and/or have solid French language skills, you can make a nice life for yourself here. If you like none of these things, and you're not content to pass your days at home all day with family, this is probably not the place for you.

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12. Do you have any other comments?

If you like warm weather, water, sports, and/or have solid French language skills, you can make a nice life for yourself here. If you like none of these things, and you're not content to pass your days at home all day with family, this is probably not the place for you.

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Cotonou, Benin 12/29/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Previous posts: Tirana, Bucharest, and Dushanbe.

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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?

Atlanta - Delta/Air France via Paris, 20 - 24 hours. Air France has flights to/from Cotonou three or four times a week depending on the season and the mood of AF. Six hours to/from Paris. The AF flight departs Cotonou at 23:30 and arrives in Paris at 06:00. Coming to Cotonou, the flight departs Paris at 13:30 and arrives in Cotonou about 20:00. Brussels Air has a similar schedule on different days. Those collecting SkyTeam frequent flyer miles use the Delta/AF connection through Paris; those collecting Star Alliance miles fly United/Brussels Air through Brussels. For emergency departures from post there is a daily, nonstop Delta flight out of Lagos to Atlanta. This connection is very expensive and the Cotonou - Lagos flight is sketchy. The transfer in Lagos can be an unpleasant experience and checked luggage must be claimed and rechecked in Lagos.

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3. How long have you lived here?

18 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most of the expats live in the Haie Vive neighborhood or in one of the nearby residential beach developments. I live in Haie Vive and prefer it for the walking proximity to shopping, restaurants, and Livingstone, the expat watering hole. All residential construction in Benin is poured concrete and tile floors in general. I can only speak for U.S. Embassy housing in particular. Embassy houses tend to be quite large and ours has almost adequate closet space (from an American prospective). The kitchens and bathrooms can be oddly laid out afterthoughts in the older homes but are much nicer in the newer beach developments. There’s no central ventilation in houses. Most every room will have a “split-pack” AC unit. The commute from Haie Vive to the U.S. Embassy is five to ten minutes depending on traffic. You don’t want to live “over the bridge” (actually, two bridges) on the east side of Cotonou. The two bridges bottleneck the Cotonou commuting traffic and the main highway from Lagos. That commute is a hours-long nightmare that you want no part of. Traffic in the downtown area really isn't too bad and mainly consists of motor scooters, the primary means of transportation for most Beninese.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Expensive. Everything is imported, mostly from France, so most all of the brands are French. The U.S. Embassy has a consumables allowance. Take advantage of it.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Some thick Astroturf matts to help keep the sand out of the house.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Livingstone is the expat hangout. It has decent pizza, so-so burgers, good brochette entrées, and a two-for-one happy hour on Saturday. On Saturday night, that’s where you’ll find most of the expats. It's reasonably priced. A South African fast food chain, Steers, just opened near the airport. They seem to have not quite gotten their act together, but we have high hopes. There are good Indian, French, Thai, and Lebanese restaurants. There’s even a sushi place and nobody has as of yet died after eating there. While the non-Beninese restaurants are expensive by local standards I think that most of the expats consider them reasonable.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Benin would be a tough place for someone with special dietary needs or restrictions.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes are everywhere and flies can be annoying outside. Cotonou is a malaria post and you’ll either take malaria prophylaxis or you’ll get malaria. You may get malaria anyway. You’ll come to think of N,n-Diethyl Meta Toluamide* “DEET” as a fragrance. Most people have a chronic ant problem in the kitchen but few cockroaches. *Active ingredient in insect repellant.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

I use the diplomatic pouch.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap and plentiful. I pay on the high end of the domestic help salary scale just so I can sleep at night, $180USD/month for four and a half days a week. Our housekeeper works from about 9:00 a.m. until about 6:00 p.m., and until about 3:30 on Friday. Most domestics are expected to work 12 hours M-F and a half day on Saturday, but I think that’s excessive by any measure. With the level of dust and pollution in Cotonou, a full-time housekeeper is an absolute necessity for keeping your house clean. It’s impossible to get a housekeeper to take a vacation (it would take me too long to go into all the whys, so just trust me on this), so it is customary to pay an extra month’s salary in December. There’s also local social security tax that we pay. If you have kids and both work, you’re going to need a nanny and a housekeeper. Some people have tried to have one domestic do double duty, but it never works. There’s just too much cleaning to be done.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are a few commercial gyms and the U.S. Embassy has a decently equipped workout room.

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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?

I cash checks at the embassy. I'm told that the ATM machines at the better hotels are ok. Benin is a cash economy. Credit cards are accepted at a few of the nicer hotels and at Erevan, the one and only big box store in Benin.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I understand that there’s an English-language Protestant service, but I’ve never been.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

I get the U.S. Armed Forces Network (AFN) and I have the only embassy house that has the big dish required to get all 10 AFN channels. Most people get the South African DSTV satellite package. No English language publications are available.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You're going to need at least a little French.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

No accommodation is made for persons with disabilities and the streets and sidewalks are a challenge even for the young and spry.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Local transportation is an issue. There are very few taxies and none of them are radio dispatched. The only place to get a taxi is at the airport or at one of the larger hotels. The locals rely on the motor scooter taxis called “zemidjians.” Zemidjians can be identified by the drivers yellow tunic with a registration number stenciled on the back. U.S. Embassy employees are not allowed to use zemidjians. The drivers are crazy and aggressive even when sober. You really need a car here.

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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?

Most people at post have a compact, Japanese 4WD SUV like a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. The roads are mostly awful and get flooded out in the rainy season. I don't think that there are any restrictions as to cars that can be imported. Getting parts for any car can be a problem.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

While I wouldn’t go as far as calling it “high-speed,” ADSL Internet service is available. It’s ok for e-mail, online shopping, FB chat, and my Vonage phone. Skype with video gets iffy, and I don’t have much luck with streaming video. Don’t expect to download movies or use Slingbox. We pay about US$180/month. Yep, it ain’t cheep. Warning! Most U.S. based e-commerce sites don’t like West-African ISPs popping up and many will block the local ISP. Remember, we’re right next door to Nigeria and many Nigerian Internet scammers have moved here. I use a VPN appliance which gives me a SSL connection to an ISP in the States.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

The Embassy issues cell phones to employees. Otherwise, get an unlocked, quad-band, GSM mobile phone and prepaid SIM card from MTN or MOOV. The SIM card will cost about $20 USD up front and the refill minutes cards can be purchased from vendors who are never more than 15 feet from you at any time. The mobile service is good in town and fair in the countryside. Mobile calls are cheap and mobile phone calls to the States run about 12 cents a minute. Smart phone data plans are also available from the major carriers.

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Pets:

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, all that’s needed is a health certificate and rabies vaccination certificate. If your pet is small enough to be carried aboard I would recommend doing so. Airline baggage gets very rough handling here, and the Beninese don’t share or understand the whole attachment to our pets thing.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There is a vet here that the expats seem to like. The vet comes to your house. I wouldn’t recommend bringing an aging pet or one with an ongoing health issue. There are no kennels that I know of. The expats either get their household staff to provide pet care while away, or get a Peace Corps Volunteer to housesit. One last word on pets, and this comes as a strong admonishment from the embassy local staff, NEVER LET PETS OUT OF THE HOUSE OFF A LEASH, ESPECIALLY CATS. I’m told they taste a lot like chicken.

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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?

Mostly no, and certainly not without French. The U.S. makes an effort to find a job for all the family members who want to work.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business dress at work. Conservitive dress in public.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

So long as you’re not stupid, Benin is one of the safest places in Africa. Much of what crime there is comes out of Nigeria. There was a Togolese carjacking crew active when I got here but the Gendarmes tracked them into the bush and killed them. There hasn’t been a problem with carjacking since. There was a brief, late night pedestrian robbery problem in the international residential area but a mob of the residential guards chased two of the robbers down, beat one to death, and sent the other to the hospital in bad shape. It’s been real quiet since then. There are incidences of petty crime but it’s avoidable so long as you’re vigilant. While Boko Haram terrorist activity is on the rise in neighboring Nigeria, and AQIM is on a kidnapping spree in neighboring Mali and Niger, all is quiet in Benin. I haven’t noticed any of the warning signs of radical Islam turning up in Benin. Benin is politically stable and just had peaceful elections that were judged to be free and fair by the international community.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Many. Medical care here is fair at best. The U.S. Embassy has a great doctor.

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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?

The air quality depends on the time of year, direction of the wind, and amount of traffic on the street. Right now, the “Harmattans” (Saharan winds) are blowing and filling the sky with gray-brown dust that looks like a dirty overcast. Mix that with diesel and two-cycle effluents and Cotonou air gets a little on the toxic side.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot and wet or hot and dusty depending on the season. Even though Benin is 6 degrees north of the equator, November through March are the warmer months by a few degrees. While the daytime temperature rarely goes above the mid to high 90s(F), the humidity stays over 90%.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I don’t have kids, so anything I say about the schools is going to be anecdotal and second hand. There is the large French School which has competitive entrance and requires fluent French, and there is the British International School. Embassy officers have had kids in the French School in the past and were happy with the experience. Currently, there are only two school age kids at post and they go to the British International School. Their parents seem to be satisfied with the quality of the instruction and curriculum. I would not bring a non-French speaking teenager to Benin.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Probably limited if any, but please check with the schools on this.

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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?

As far as I know there’s no commercial daycare available in Benin. Expats with preschoolers all have nannies and they all love their nannies.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Only through the schools as far as I know.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Probably about 1,000, mostly French.

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2. Morale among expats:

Good.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

We make our own fun.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

The Anglophone community is so small that the singles, couples, and families all mix and mingle. I’m not sure that one has any particular advantage over the other. We all make our own fun. Fluent French speakers are going to have a much larger social pool.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Beninese are socially and religiously conservative and LGBT issues are not openly discussed. However, and unlike neighboring Nigeria, nobody is trying to get anti-gay laws passed here in Benin. The Government of Benin is accrediting the same-sex partners of foreign diplomats. I don’t think that any of the gay or lesbian officers at the U.S. Embassy have experienced any hostility or discrimination.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Benin is about one third Catholic, one third Muslim, and one third Animist (native religion). There seems to be a very good level of religious tolerance. Gender-based violence is an issue in Benin but the government is taking serious steps to address this and to have law enforcement and the courts not brush this off as a “family matter. Women enjoy equal rights in Benin and I haven’t noticed any overt discrimination.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

I’ve gotten to make three, very extensive trips into the interior and very north of Benin on official business. If you get a chance to get out of the immediate area of Cotonou take advantage of it. Benin has some wonderful scenery but absolutely no tourist or transportation infrastructure beyond the capital and Ouidah. Getting out into the countryside takes some doing and, therefore, is usually limited to official trips.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

We do a good bit of home entertaining or meet in groups at restaurants. The beach in town is dodgy, polluted, and has dangerous surf. Most of the expats go to the beach about 12 Km west of Cotonou where it’s cleaner and the surf less dangerous. Many embassies and organizations lease beach huts in this area for their exclusive use. These huts are a pleasant place for a group to grill, swim and pass a pleasant weekend afternoon. Bab’s Dock, a day resort a few more kilometers down the beach road, is a restaurant and dock on an inland lagoon. Bab’s dock features swimming and various water toys for the kids. A drive of about an hour will get you to the beach hotel called Casa del Papa which has clean rooms, a nice pool, and a Putt-Putt course.

For history and culture there is Ouida, a town about an hour’s drive from Cotonou. Ouidah was a large slave trading center between the 15th and 19th centuries, and has an interesting museum in an old Portuguese fort. Ouidah was is also a center of traditional African religion that was exported to the new world as Voodoo. The Snake Village and Voodoo Center are a must see in Ouidah. Ganvié, the “Venice of Africa” is an interesting day trip from Cotonou. Ganvié is a city on stilts on the north side of Lac Nokoué. Getting to and around Ganvié is possible only be boat. The Marina Hotel has a poorly maintained executive golf course which is better than no golf at all. The course has a good teaching pro, but offers no equipment or supplies. You’ll need to have your own clubs and bring balls, tees, and gloves with you.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Lots of local crafts and woodworking.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Cotonou is a sleepy, dusty/damp (depending on the time of the year), malarial backwater. Not much goes on here. However, if you’ve got to be posted to West Africa this isn’t a bad place to be. If you need nightlife, the arts, and the hustle and bustle of an urban environment, this isn’t the place for you.

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11. Can you save money?

Depends.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Wool.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sun tan lotion.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?


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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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New book from Talesmag! Honest and courageous stories of life abroad with special needs.

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