Benin (formerly Dahomey), and its stilt Village of Ganvie, on Lake Nokoue in West Africa


(Village of Ganvie

While living two years in Togo, I explored nearby countries and cultures. We are going on another one of our adventures, with my trusty little British Racing Green 1956 M.G.A. two-bucket-seat convertible. We bounced over narrow bridges, and maneuvered around numerous potholes, being careful with my low-slung roadster.

We saw a nasty trainwreck that happened during the night. The locals heard screaming and came out of their homes to see if they could help. We also saw a trail of refugees headed south: they had been kicked out of Liberia carrying all their belongings.  A Red Cross planeat the airport, waited to aid them.

Driving through theborderbetween Togo and Dahomey, we saw numerous colorful “mammy wagons” (light trucks used as buses in rural areas of Western Africa). We observed a constant flow of men and women, with goods precariously perched on top of their head cloths.

The Dan-Homey chiefdoms were merged into a dynasty, under the name of Dan-Ho-Me. In 1899, Dahomey became part of the French West Africa colony in 1958 It was granted autonomy as the Republic of Dahomey, gaining fullindependence from France in 1960. Ethnic strife followed as did a period of turbulence, coups and regime changes.

On the Gulf of Guinea, Benin’s capital is Porto Novo, but the seat of government is Cotonou. Named after the body of water where the country is situated, the Bight of Benin’s boundaries have over fifty distinct linguistic groups and nearly as many individual ethnic groups with French being the official language. Most of the population practices religions other than Christianity and Muslimism with voodoo (its birthplace is Dahomey) being prominent.

Safely reaching Lake Nokoue, leaving my beloved car behind, I’m becoming apprehensive: no one knows we’re here, and we could be bopped over the head, disposed of, and no one would ever know. The only ones that might wonder about us are our houseboy Apollinaire, who is watching over our house and our African dog Lobo.

We gingerly stepped into a small wooden boat, and went out toGanvie Village, the “African Venice,” floating in the middle of a lagoon. Unlike Venice, Ganvie has no land, no bridges, and travel is strictly by boat.

As the Dahomey kings expanded their kingdom and pressed conquered people into slavery, they came upon the Tofinu people, who escaped, and fled onto Lake Nokoue. Finding protection in the inaccessibility of the lagoon, they constructed homes built of sticks, suspended above the water level. Fortunately for the Tofinu, the slave hunters pursuing them were not allowed to follow them onto the lake because of a religious custom that disallowed them to travel on water.

The Tofinu have been living here since then, existing almost entirely off fish caught in the lake by building artificial reef-like areas out of palm fronds, which attract the fish. The villagers construct nets to haul in the catch. The residents bathe, and do everything else, in this water. We noticed numerous colorful pirogues (canoes), which serve as transportation and commerce. We spotted many tribal scars, marking tribal provenance.

On stilts, the sturdy, thatched-roof bamboo huts are lifted on piles three yards above the lake, which is connected to the sea. Some of the houses were leaning so precariously, they looked like they would fall over. Boats, full of containers, queue up for fresh water that is dispensed by pumps. At night, the village of Ganvie shuts down quickly, and boats start the day’s business early in the morning.

Returning safely to solid ground, my car had a flat tire, which we had to get fixed. The repairman wore a beautiful, colorful pajama-like outfit. We drove to Abomey, a small town with a jumble of dirt roads tracks and footpaths. The seat of power for the Dahomey Kingdom, Abomey is the ancient capital of one of the fiercest warrior cultures in West Africa-the Dahomey. One King had 4,000 wives, and one-third of his subjects were warriors, among them about 8,000 “Amazons,” young female fighters who elected not to marry, nor to become farmers.

Dahomey, once a major supplier of slaves for exporters shipping from the Slave Coast, received abundant wealth from the slave trade.  Some accounts say Dahomey rounded up over three million people to sell to slave traders.

Active in the region for almost three hundred years, Dahomey became called “the Slave Coast.” Kingdoms like the Dan-Homey used their powers in a continuous state of war, and therefore received a steady flow of prisoners for their slave trade. Court procedures, demanding that a portion of war captives from the numerous battles be decapitated, led to a decrease in the number of enslaved people exported from the area. The decline, partly due to many colonial countries declaring slave trade illegal, continued until 1885, when the last Portuguese trade vessel with slaves departed from the coast of present-day Benin  With the slave trade eliminated, Abomey deteriorated, and the country changed to making and exporting palm oil. Only four things endure: thepalm-oil dynasty, the palm-oil industry; voodoo; and tapestries.

In the Abomey Museum, we saw gifts from France and other countries. For every cannon at the museum, fifteen Africans were traded, many going to Haiti and Brazil, transporting voodoo rituals. We saw flourishing folk art, colorful symbolic pictures sewn into imaginative cotton applique tapestriesKings were symbolized by an animal counterpart, with an accompanying moral epithet, and I bought one. One tapestry showed a king using a dismembered leg to beat the head of an enemy. A king’s throne appeared to be a normal wooden throne but held up by four human skulls.

The region of Dahomey/Benin is for travelers, and not for the ordinary tourist. I therefore had the rare opportunity to experience a culture before it was changed by tourism.

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