“I Was Homeless In Benin Republic”- Abroad Life

February 5, 2021

The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.

Today’s subject on Abroad Life moved to Benin Republic in 2012. He talks about how the exchange rates and money problems with his family back at home affected his four-year stay there. 

When did you move to Benin republic?

I had to go to Benin Republic in 2012. It was the only option for my family financially. My JAMB scores weren’t good enough for Nigerian public school cut off marks, and we didn’t have enough money for a private school. I’d heard a lot about Houdegbe North American University and how it was a good school so I decided to go there. I had cousins in Benin Republic, so it was an opportunity to bond with them, learn a new language and experience a different culture. I like to see things from a cup-half-full perspective; that helped me quickly move past mental barriers. 

How was settling in?

Communication was difficult at first. I had to learn French on my feet, especially for quick everyday conversations with bike men, market women and people who provided essential services. The number of Nigerians you’ll find in Benin Republic will blow your mind. In my time there, I encountered more Nigerians than Beninese, and if someone told me that the Nigerian population is higher than the local population, I’d believe without thinking twice. At some point, my landlord was Nigerian and even my lecturers were Nigerians.

So apart from communicating with providers of essential services, I was mainly communicating with Nigerians, and that made things easier for me. 

I stayed with my cousins for a year and a half, and then we split. We didn’t have any problems or anything, we just found new people we wanted to move in with. 

Did that turn out well?

At first, it did. It was super exciting. I had adult responsibilities for the first time: getting an apartment with my friends, getting some furniture, speaking with landlords. I felt powerful. I knew If I’d stayed in Nigeria and gone somewhere like UNILAG, I’d probably stay in a hostel or come from home. Co-owning an apartment in Benin Republic made me feel powerful. 

Nice. Why did you say “at first”?

Finances started waning. The exchange rates were super fucked. I was getting an allowance of ₦10,000 a month and that was about 30,000 CFA. Things are much more expensive in Benin Republic than in Nigeria, so it got difficult to live from day to day. When I look at the exchange rates now and see that one naira is just 1.38 CFA, my heart breaks for Nigeria. 

Did the finances get better?

Rent started getting expensive too. Most landlords were cashing in on the fact that school hostels were more expensive than apartments, so they increased prices so that apartments would still be cheaper than school hostels but only slightly. 

My rent expired just as I was about to begin my final year. I called friends and tried to organise a system where we would all live together and pay rent, but nobody was interested. I didn’t have enough money to rent on my own and I couldn’t talk to my mum about it because she was struggling with my fees– I was even owing school fees. 

I had to talk to some classmates to let me keep my stuff in their apartment. In the mornings, I would go to their houses, freshen up and get out of their hair. Whenever they asked where I was sleeping, I’d just laugh and brush it off. The truth is that I was sleeping in the classrooms. I’d wait for everyone to go home — sometimes I’d leave with them — before coming back to settle in one of the classrooms. It was very lowkey. 

Were there any dangers of living in the classrooms?

Apart from the mosquitoes and the fact that it was uncomfortable as hell, I had to stay alert every night so that the patrolling security men wouldn’t find me. My body clock knew that by 2 a.m., they would do their regular checks and I would get in trouble if they caught me so I had to hide, and sometimes move around while they were doing their searches. Terrible stuff.  

Damn. How did it work out?

Some classmate who was also my friend found out and told me to move in with her. I didn’t ask her initially because she was a woman. I didn’t see myself living with a woman. But I moved in with her and her flatmates, and I slept on the couch in the living room. That was nice. 

What’s one thing you regret about your stay in Benin Republic?

It’s definitely the fact that I couldn’t live as much as I wanted to. I couldn’t find a job, so I had to live on a meagre allowance for four years. That means I couldn’t go out, have fun, and experience all the things that I wanted to. I remember seeing the rich kids that would not go to class and just stay in their rented four-bedroom apartments and chill and thinking, “Why isn’t this my life?” 

One of the few times I tried to have fun, my friends and I almost got arrested by the police. 

Tell me the story.

We were returning from a party, and it was past curfew so the police were everywhere. After running from one set that was patrolling, we ran into another set. Thankfully, they didn’t arrest us. They just queried us. We lied that we went to buy food in party clothes. The Nigerian in me was already calculating how much I’d have to pay to free myself from this mess. When they finally asked us to “give them something”, I said I didn’t have money and the shock on the man’s face surprised me. 

“Money?” he asked. “Shebi una talk say you go buy food. Ehn give us food na.” 

We didn’t have any food, so we just told them we didn’t find anything. They let us go. 

Is Benin Republic police different from Nigerian police?

Oh, they’re much better. At least they were when I was there. They were very much more civilized and organised. They wouldn’t just go around arresting people unjustly or causing havoc. 

Were things better when you left?

I left in 2016, but things hadn’t gotten better. By the time I left Benin Republic, I was still owing school fees. I couldn’t pay it off fully until about a year later. 

I like to see my time in Benin Republic as something I’ll talk about when I become successful. It was a dark place in my life. 

David Odunlami

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