Getting Around Benin: Hiss and Zem.

Some of you may recall my stories of tro-tros in Ghana. The main mode of public transportation, they were gutted vans that were refit to seat up to 30 people. I learned from my experiences in tro-tros that Ghanaians have very little need for personal space, as I would be crammed next to strangers for hours on end.

Benin has a different approach to public transportation, though I can’t say it is any safer. It does however, provide one with the exhilarating feeling of seeing their life flash before their eyes on the back of a motorcycle in a world without traffic laws or safety helmets.

Zemidjan’s are what the Beninese call these motocycle taxi’s. The literal translation is “Bring me there quickly!” And that they do, even you think you might die on the way to your destination. Below is a picture of my friend, Amanda on the back of a zem.

One thing I found really cool is that many of the zems in Cotonou sport shirts with the Rotary Polio campaign emblem on them. This is the same program I volunteered with in Ghana where I went out in the villages distributing the oral polio vaccines.

Now about the “Hiss” in the title. This cultural tidbit is true for both Ghana and Benin (and I assume for most of West Africa.) In the United States, if we want to get someone’s attention, we might say, “Excuse me, Sir?” or “Hello? Ma’am.” Sometimes we accompany this with a wave or other hand gesture. Here in West Africa, you hiss. Yes, hiss, like a snake. At first I was offended by this because vendors would often hiss at me in the street to get my attention. But after a while, I realized it was really the only way to get anyone’s attention, period.

So, in Benin as well as in Ghana, I hiss. I hiss at the waiter to order another beer, I hiss at the zem driver to ask him to take me downtown. This new habit is something I desperately  hope to leave in West Africa as I leave, as I would be so embarassed if a little hiss slipped out when calling out to someone back in the U.S. :)


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  1. Alex Mills says:

    OMG don’t hiss at me when you get back!! :)

  2. Dave Preovolos says:

    Sy, if the ‘hiss’ becomes too engrained while in W-A, just arrange your return to the US to include a month or so in Manhattan….you’ll fit right in until you’re able to discard the habit….

  3. Lisa says:

    Funny! better not bring that back home! Your sisters would just hiss back!

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