Our port is Cotonou. Although Cotonou is not the capital of Benin, it is the largest city and home to many government and diplomatic services. They estimate there are 1.2 million people here now – so many come and go that they can’t get an accurate census. In 1960 there were only 70,000. French is spoken here besides the local language, Fon. Our very personable, young guide, Valentine, spoke German as well as French and English. He is studying English literature at the University and gives English lessons to children. He was very anxious to practice his English with us, naming all sorts of things that we passed by. Though we couldn’t always understand him we got the gist of what he was trying to tell us.
Port Cotonou is hectic and unorganized with dirt roadways in bad condition. Once out of the port the central city looks modern; but again, the buildings are in poor condition. Traffic is heavy on city streets with thousands of motorbikes. Here the taxi-bike drivers wear yellow shirts to distinguish them from the rest. We saw many of these roadside stands selling a mix of gas and oil for motorbikes in old wine and coke bottles!
We drove west through the city, past some major highway construction – overpasses are in their future but we didn’t see any work being done. The main road literally disintegrates as you drive farther out with huge potholes to navigate around. Many times we drove on the wrong side of the road, cars and motorbikes dodging every which way. In an hour and a half we arrived in the smaller town of Oidah, the City of Voodoo, considered the spiritual center of Benin. Here we visited the Sacred Forest, a park-like area with statues representing an array of Voodoo spirits. Our guide explained the connection of Voodoo to the ancient trees where the spirits of the ancestors reside. Some of the trees with their knobby old appearance could certainly lead to this belief. It was mentioned at some point on the tour that the Voodoo practiced here is not the same as “Hollywood Voodoo” and different from what is practiced in the Caribbean. People here mix Voodoo with their other religions, as does our guide, a Catholic.
This is an army of ants.
There is a statue in the central square of Oidah that commemorates the slave market that was there. This is a typical side street.
Next was the Temple of the Sacred Pythons. I’ll let these pictures tell that story!
Petting the crocodile was enough for me.
We had time at the History Museum, the Fort of Jean de Baptiste, another slave collection point. Here slaves were led down a long road to the coast. On their way they walked past the “Tree of Remembrance” where they would circle it a number of times. This was supposed to help them leave their old life behind and accept their new one across the ocean. On the beach there is a UNESCO memorial arch commemorating this departure site.
We passed lots of school children. The tan uniform signifies the public school. Girls have been encouraged to go to school just recently.
We ended our tour of West Africa with a boat ride on Nokoue Lake. This is a huge salt water wetland that connects to waters in Nigeria. The lake is only about 3 feet deep in most areas.
The Tofinu people live in Ganvie Village, built on stilts in the lake far out of view from the shore. Boats that hold maybe 20 people go back and forth from the stilt village to the little Calavi Harbour. Most of the lake traffic is even smaller boats, paddled or poled (some with makeshift sails) by the residents, even young children. The stilt village has a school built on higher ground with a small dock where the children tie up their boats. A few houses have accumulated enough earth around the stilts to become a bit of a yard with grasses and space for chickens to roam. The village market is a roof on stilts, the women row their boats under it, out of the sun, to do their trading. And there’s a hotel, a restaurant and a gift shop!
There’s a mosque and two large church buildings that look to be abandoned or unfinished, not sure which. (In every town we’ve seen many “building shells” and it’s not clear if they are going up or coming down.) This area flooded badly during the past rainy season and many abandoned their homes for a time. We could see the high water mark on the sides of the buildings.
This village was the highlight of our visit to Benin.
We arrived back from today’s adventure and Will remarked that he didn’t think it looked so bad compared to Togo. Which goes to show, you can get used to anything if you see it often enough. I’d been thinking the poverty was progressively worse in each of the 5 ports we’ve visited. But our guides in the West African ports we visited have been hopeful and proud of their countries. More and more children are being educated and their governments are relatively stable. That’s quite an accomplishment compared to how badly things are going in the Ivory Coast after their election.