Dantokpa is Cotonou’s main market. But it is also the de facto central market along the West Coast of Africa where soot-skinned Togolese mingle with rastafarians from Ghana and Nigerians spewing their inimitable pidgin English.
There is a general belief that if you acquire a new international passport, the best way to ‘baptise’ it is to visit Cotonou in nearby Benin Republic. You may want to translate that to a memorable experience. So, the question is where to go to once you crossed the border and had your document stamped. If there are three must-see places in Benin Republic, the Dantokpa market must make the list. And if you don’t know where you are going to in Cotonou, just get to Dantokpa, it is the beginning and the end of a great time out in the country.
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Dantokpa is Cotonou’s main market. But it is also the de facto central market along the West Coast of Africa where soot-skinned Togolese mingle with rastafarians from Ghana and Nigerians spewing their inimitable pidgin English. Burkinabes, Malians and Liberians too are there but less noticeable. Also visible are the ubiquitous Lebanese, and nowadays, the Chinese. As you navigate your way through the sea of people, your ears are bombarded with polite bonjour flying in the air left and right. The Beninese are easygoing and this makes the Dantokpa experience easier for anybody from anywhere.
Bordered by the lagoon and the St Michel boulevard, this open-air market was opened in 1963, but in time, it sprawled over 18 hectares of land in all directions. In the morning, you can see traders from various West African countries arrived by boats on the banks of the Nokoué Lake. By noon, an estimated one million people will be milling about the market. From the waterfront, the market spreads out in every direction, seeping into streets and buildings, so vast it’s easy to get lost in it.
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The intensity of the market experience is heightened by the strident sounds of bicycles, taxis and motors driving around. The smell, the heat, the crush, the colours––so buoyant you are absorbed into the tapestry of your surroundings.
This typical city market is the best introduction for the first-time visitors in Benin Republic, a “practical way of meeting the people” of Benin and the neighbouring West Africans.
Whatever your country or clan, do not be surprised when you run into a gathering of people speaking your native language. The market is so diverse culturally it is easy to see Dantokpa as a central market of sorts for the region.
What can you do? If you have enough time to kill, it’s a place to try the local food and drinks.
What can you buy? Everything under the sun. The labyrinthine lanes are crammed with commodities, from fish to soap, plastic sandals to goats, pirated DVDs to spare car parts. More traditional fare, such as batiks and Dutch wax cloth, can be found in the market everywhere. A fetish section is at the northern end of the market.
Like any market, the language of the Tokpa language is money and CFA is its name. It’s a place to flex your bargaining skill. Bear this in mind: when buying an item, negotiate the prices even if you think they are already low. Sellers tend to inflate prices especially if they see you are a foreigner (and they are quite good at that). So, you have to bluff at times. Most of the time, they will call you back and accept the price that you are offering or another seller might have. Prices are quoted higher. Here is a rule of thumb: go for a third of what is quoted. And the best time for a good bargain is at the end of the day when vendors really want to sell and you can get your best deals.
The market is beautiful, colourful, smelly, exciting and exhaustive.
If you love Ankara, Tokpa is the home of printed fabrics, colourful and lovely African and Dutch prints. The jewellery and fabrics sections, a three-storey building devoted exclusively to fabrics, also serves as the depot of gold jeweries and lace fabrics is just across the road. There, you see a world of fabric: hand woven and dyed things, wax prints, fabric from India, fabric in every imaginable print and price range.
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All the things that you wish to buy in Cotonou are in Tokpa, whether African designers’ wear or vehicle spare parts, fish or fresh fruits,spices or live animals or voodoo talismans.
The market with “a million traders” is organized into different sections, but within each section, there’s the characteristic African chaos.
While the market is sectioned by types of goods sold, each section however has a mix, a mix of everything and everyone, that allows buyers to survey a range of goods without having to trudge through the entire market. Traders move about selling goods in large wicker baskets. This mobile hawking which occurs in various languages contributes to the bustling atmosphere of the market.
Some sellers have a wide variety of merchandise while others vend mono products. While standing at a spot, you can access all the wares available in the market. Merchants on the fringe tend to sell food, fruits, meats and grains. Those that do not have umbrellas covering their merchandise wear huge straw hats to keep them protected from sun and heat.
Unlike Nigerians who are always in a haste, Beninese are quite laid back. So is their market. Traffic moves slowly within the market. Young children run through the maze of human bodies. Men with big muscles pushed heavy loads through the traffic. Bike riders stand at the ready to whisk traders away from the crowd. Although the tropical heat can be scorching, walking through the vibrant open-air market is an incomparable experience. There are two sides to every thing in life. Good and bad. Light and dark. Sweet and bitter. Jekyll and Hyde. I once had a taste of the bad side of Tokpa. On this day, I had taken my modest honorarium as a part-time lecturer in a Cotonou university. I got to Tokpa and felt the need to change the CFA to Naira. As I approached the bevy of moneychangers, one of them accosted me and offered me a fair rate. He took me to another, who brought out a wad of money. Others continued to watch in silence. After, he counted the notes, he made me counted it twice. I felt something was amiss but couldn’t figure what it was. Even as I walked away, the red light kept flashing in my mind. A few metres away, it occurred to me to count my money again. The money was N5,000 short. I realised the futility of going back to challenge the fraudsters. They had tied up the loose end by making me count the money twice.
And the silence from the other changers meant it was a scheme they pull on the unwary. For them, it was okay to cheat a stranger, especially the Nigerian. That is a reality you have to bear in mind when crossing the borders into Benin.
A few years ago, my thrice-a-week trip across Cotonou took me through the heart of Tokpa. I hardly bought things, but I usually tarry for some minutes to soak in the visual experience around me. I also listened to the flow of conversations.
Beninese are good at paradoxical language. “God is a woman” “it is fair fight where money is the referee” and “All is well that ends in bed”––I have heard all sorts. No matter how absurd a statement sounds, wait till the Beninese gives you the interpretation and you will see some pertinent wisdom in it. For me, no trip to Cotonou is complete without a visit to the Dantokpa market.