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Flood-hit area of Benin has message for future president

by Staff Writers
Cotonou (AFP) March 6, 2011
Water lines still stain the sides of bamboo huts in a deeply poor district of Benin's main city, but life has returned, and residents have a message for the candidates in upcoming presidential elections.

Build something, they say, to stop the water that flowed in from surrounding waterways several months ago, causing part of the worst flooding in West Africa last year and leading families to pay fishermen to take them away in dugouts.

"The politicians have to do something so that the water doesn't just come in like that," said Agnes Doha, a 50-year-old fish seller with six children, whose home of aluminum sheets and concrete blocks was overcome by the floods.

Doha said she was supporting President Boni Yayi in the March 13 election, which has been postponed twice because of delays in organising it.

But she and others in the Vossa district of Cotonou said it mattered less to them who won than what the victor's government does for their area afterward.

Residents fled Vossa last year as floods during the rainy season slowly rose, eventually reaching chest-high or more in the low-lying neighbourhood.

Several months on, the district again teems with activity, with children searching for crickets to use as fishing bait and residents setting up market stalls lit by the flames of small lamps in front of huts that they repaired.

A pig roamed across the muddy ground on Saturday evening and skinny chickens pecked their way down alleys.

But while Benin's presidential election is due on March 13, there has not been much talk of the floods that the United Nations says left more than 105,000 people homeless and affected some 680,000.

According to the UN, the country of 9.2 million people was the worst hit by devastating West African flooding during the 2010 rainy season. At least 46 people were reported dead.

Vossa residents told horror stories of having to scrounge up enough money to pay fishermen to leave in their wooden dugouts when the water rose too high, packing whatever they could in carry bags.

One man said he knew of children who had drowned, and spoke of losing clothes, documents and whatever else he and his family could not take with them.

Jacob Tokpon, a 45-year-old fishermen whose bamboo hut took on water even though it is already built on stilts, said the government should construct a barrier to keep such flooding from happening again.

"We don't want water coming in like that," the father of eight children said in the local Fon language, a crowd of residents that had gathered around him nodding in agreement. "We want them to block the water, build something."

He said his family lived at a school for three or four months as they waited for their neighbourhood to dry out.

Relief items such as rice and mosquito nets were provided at the time, said Tokpon, with the UN having appealed for emergency funding.

Victor Kouliho, 50, said the flooding was the worst he had seen in four decades and ruined everything inside his bamboo home, but he was able to move back in it when it dried.

"We need pipes to drain off the water," he said.

Kouliho disappeared for a minute so he could fetch something from his house and returned with a picture of himself.

It was taken as the water was rising and he was preparing to flee, holding a wicker basket full of prawns he intended to sell and another bag of personal belongings with a look on his face that seemed both shocked and amused.

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