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Unlocking the mysteries of African design in Cotonou

Unlocking the mysteries of African design in Cotonou
Akpakpa District

Doing an internship abroad is always a meaningful experience

It’s an opportunity to discover other cultures, both personal and professional in terms of methodology and project management. At the beginning of their Master’s course, students must spend between 13 and 24 weeks doing a semester in a partner university or an internship in a company.
In September 2018, three of them chose Benin as their destination. Wilfried, Jules and Théophile take us on a trip to Africa in l’Atelier des Griots or the Development Agency in Sémé City, Cotonou.

A great design potential through crafts

Théophile Nogrix, a 3rd year student in Spatial design was the first to leave in August 2018 and joined the Development Agency in Sémé City. Wilfried Van Den Eynde and Jules Riché, in the first year of their Master’s degree, chose to join l’Atelier des Griots in September 2018. And they don’t regret their choice of destination. “So, the first thing you notice here is the humidity. As soon as you step off the plane, you find yourself in the kind of climate where you melt instantly. It’s hard to get used to it, that and the pollution which is omnipresent: exhaust pipes belching out adulterated petrol, slaloms on motorcycle-taxis and a city littered with plastic waste because there are no public bins here.” It might sound like hell but that is certainly not how the three future designers see it. “It opens up a host of opportunities: we have to rethink our design, our inspirations, our materials… We walk around with our eyes wide open: arts and crafts are everywhere and come in every shape and size here!”, they exclaim in awe.

Akpakpa district

Half their time in an architects’ firm…

Jules, Théophile and Wilfried lead a hectic life, combining a job in an architects’ firm with involvement in the NGO l’Atelier des Griots.
We are trying to set aside some time to visit the country but it’s hard enough just taking in the cultural diversity of Benin through our work. We try to add our own touch while at the same time assimilating the local craftsmen’s way of working. We’re also using this opportunity to reorganize the entire firm. Our first assignment was to create resting and dining areas within the agency. Being seen more as a colleague than as an intern has done us a lot of good!” Of course, the pace is different in Africa: “here, things get done less quickly than in Europe during the design phase as there are a lot of discussions. It takes a lot of patience! The key word is ‘slowly’”.

Akpakpa Community Center

… And the other half in an NGO

The NGO l’Atelier des Griots works on projects in connection with the population of poor neighborhoods, particularly Akpakpa Dodomey Enagnon which is undergoing tremendous change. The current project is to build a community center in order to simplify children’s access to knowledge and give them a place to express themselves. “We are constantly learning from the talent, the cultures and the ways of working to be found in Akpakpa”. While waiting to raise the funds needed to construct the building, the designers are bringing the area to life by offering the young (and not so young) the chance to create furniture, frescos and events to liven up the space and prepare it for its future role!
So yes, it’s very demanding! Cotonou is a city where anything is possible! What with musical offerings and invitations to fashion shows, every day we meet a host of artists who make up the fabric of Beninese life!”

If you ever get the chance to go to Cotonou, our three students recommend visiting the Zinsou foundation. You will learn about the role of contemporary African art, Zangbeto, and the Akpakpa neighborhood where you will be greeted with a glass of Sodabi (palm wine) and perhaps unlock some of the secrets of the country’s voodoo history…