We used to get around Benin on motorcycle taxis called zems. Watching other riders on the back of a zem is like witnessing an entirely new dimension of life: you see babies tied to their mother’s backs on motorcycles, people carrying loads more than twice their weight on motorcycles, adults with three children squished between them on motorcycles... It’s not unusual to see men on zems hauling 20-foot lead pipes that drag on the road behind them. Sometimes you catch sight of a person carrying a sheet of glass that makes it look like their arms are suspended in the air, carrying nothing. On rainy days, zems crawl through puddles while water rolls up the wheels and passengers stick their legs out to the sides so their feet don't get wet. In our neighborhood, without paved roads, zem drivers make tracks alongside the puddles, skillfully avoiding the depths of the middle.
The first time I rode a motorcycle at all was when we first visited three years ago. I went from complete novice to taking moto-taxis multiple times a day, without so much as a hint of hesitation. For car rides, you either knew a driver or you didn’t. But zems could be found any and everywhere, at any time of the day or night. For longer trips between cities, we took bush taxis, communal cabs shared with strangers. The driver only departed when the car, meant for four or five people, was filled by seven— four in the back, two sharing the passenger seat, and the driver, of course. But for everything else, there was the zem.
This year, Benin got yellow taxis. You call the central office, they quote a price, and send a car. Drivers would get lost coming to our place or complain about the distance or the roads or try to raise the quoted price when they reached us. Then we started taking the phone numbers of the best drivers and amassed a rotation of people to call when we needed a lift.
When we returned a few weeks ago, we knew that our days of taxis and zems were over— we needed our own wheels. Mat went into full effect shopping for used cars and finally found the perfect one. It was owned by an American couple who lived in a gated community near the embassies, full of immigrants from the U.S., Germany, and France. Their house had floor to ceiling windows and looked like something out of a West Elm magazine. They talked about their time in Benin like scorned dogs licking fresh wounds. After three years of being harassed and abused, they were leaving. They offered one nightmarish story after another as cautionary tales— being swindled by locals, being excessively stopped by cops while driving (so the cops could be paid off), a mechanic taking their money without fixing their car, domestic workers stealing from them, a landlady who jacked up the rent and tried to kick them out…
The woman, Angela, was a 40-something from Minnesota with died blonde hair in a tight ponytail. She spoke with unquestioning authority.
“Be careful. These people can’t be trusted,” she said.
Her husband, Joel, kept a bright optimistic smile on his face that was tinged with pity. He never broke eye contact or stopped smiling.
“We used to be just like you...,” he said with a sigh. His voice trailed off while he searched for advice to offer.
Then, Angela launched into a tirade about Fon people (the ethnic majority in the south) that was based on her personal theory that they can’t be trusted because they are the descendants of slavers. I found it painfully ironic that a white woman was telling me to not trust an entire group of people because they participated in the slave trade. I wondered if she, a white American would look at me, a black American, and see the connection to how the psychological wounds of slavery have played out in our own country; if she could imagine enduring such generational trauma, all the while having her quality of life, self image, and general safety systematically undermined by the perpetrators of the crimes. Seeing my eyes glaze over, she referenced an academic paper by a sociologist that drew a connection between a “cultural lack of trust” among people in Benin and the slave trade. I conceded that the trauma of having family members stolen and sold into slavery and witnessing the thieves rise to the highest levels of society must leave an impression. Judging from her endless complaints about the injustice she’s endured because of being perceived as rich in a developing country, I knew the connection to our country completely evaded her.
She claimed that police stopped them more than 40 times in their first year, without reason. The only thing that put a stop to it was that she met the chief of police who works in government and got his business card. From then on, whenever cops stopped them she waved the chief’s business card and asked if she should give their boss a call. She concluded the story with a smug look of triumph. I smiled and agreeably raised my eyebrows, acknowledging her victory. I tried to let her smugness roll off of me, but it was impossible unleash myself from the glare of the elephant in the room: unwarranted police stops for black people in our home country aren’t usually resolved so easily; that maybe she should be that grateful she doesn’t have to contemplate carrying a sign that says if she dies in police custody, it wasn’t suicide, and that her troubles with police can be waved away with a business card.
We took a zem when we picked up the car a few days later. As I rode on the back of the motorcycle sandwiched between Mat and the driver, sharp grains of sand kicked up under the wheels and stung my ankles. I took in the smells of gasoline, the sweaty odor of the driver, the sounds of car horns and trucks. The open air blasted in my face and I closed my eyes trying to let my memory capture this first way that I learned the city. It would be my last zem ride in a long time.
Driving home, I began to think of how owning a car would change our lives. More than just an upgrade to how we get around, it represents a letting go of the backpackers who’d come to Benin the first time a few years ago— who had no problem squishing into a sedan with six other people for hours-long trips, who didn’t think twice about jumping on the back of motorcycles and zipping through traffic with no prior experience. It also represented stepping into a different economic class in a country steeped in poverty. Owning a car doesn’t mean that we’re rich, but it does mean that we can afford to not pay less than a dollar (the cost of most zem rides) to get around. Now, we are no longer people who take in the city by the open air when we get from here to there. Now, we ride around shielded in metal vehicles, looking through windows, with air conditioning blowing our sweat dry before we arrive at our destinations. Our clothes won’t reek with the smells of the city. We won’t make the type of eye contact with fellow riders that can only be shared when there is no glass partition, when our eyes share the deep knowing of our vulnerability in volatile traffic, and the knowledge of exactly the way the air feels on our skin.
I had driven a rental car on a weekend trip earlier this year, but driving home was my first time driving in the city, Cotonou. Avoiding the zems, getting used to the lack of traffic lights and street signs, learning the science of not getting stuck in mud when driving through puddles, not being swallowed by fear when swarms of motorcycles surround me as I maneuver tight spaces...this is a new way of learning the city. Every drive adds a new layer of knowledge to the mental vista of this move. It’s a new way of getting from here to there, a new way of comprehending space.