A mysterious beauty, unpredictable by nature, there are secrets that Africa holds close to her heart. Brave yet vulnerable. Complex. Once encountered she’s found infinitely desirable. And in this her charm and the draw of our beloved Continent. Its also exactly how I found Benin, when I travelled there a few years back.
With visits to Southern and East African countries to my name, and as a child of Africa myself, I thought I had tasted the magic and resilience. Yet I needed to touch on the bulge of Africa to find her core, and mine.
Joining consultants developing farming projects for a local NGO, I was lucky enough to spend 10 days recceing this narrow strip of land, tightly tucked between Togo and Nigeria with Burkina Faso and Niger as Northern boundaries.
History weaves tales of the time when Benin was ruled by the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 17th and 18th centruty. Known as the slave coast, it is from here that large numbers of slaves were shipped to the ‘new world’ during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the time. Slavery was abolished and France took over the country as French Dahomey, leaving their language and strong food culture among their influences. In 1960 Dahomey gained independence from France, but it was only in 1991 that it become the Republic of Benin. As we find it today.
Arriving in coastal Cotonou via Libreville, the humidity left dust dripping from my skin as I yearned for a better command of French, the only language I heard in the cities. Noise and effective chaos. The coastline welcomes the few tourists it sees with warmth and sticky air, sweet aromas and friendly smiles. The colourful traditional clothing a vision.
I was committed to seeing all that I could. Assigned a driver and translator guide, with a central hotel as base, I spent my first full day in Ouidah. Well known as the Voodoo Capital of the World, every year on 10 January, it is here that Benin celebrates its national religion with a festival. Travel diaries out – note taken!
The Sacred Forest of Kpasse and a real Voodoo Doll seen in Ouidah.
The Portuguese, Dutch, English and French all constructed forts in this area to protect their slaving industry. The most popular being the Portuguese St. John the Baptist of Ouidah Fort, which I visited. Very good for a history of the exploitation of the Dahomey people, by the Europeans and their own leaders.
My highlight was the Phython Temple in the middle of Ouidah village, where more than 50 pythons roam free and protected. If you find one in your house it is considered a good omen, and they are given free rein until they opt to return. I sat here among them, still and content. Touching their silky skin.
This is the coast from which the Slaves were taken, today aptly named the Door of No Return. A monument stands here reminding of this cruel time. There is a heaviness in the air, a chill despite the heat of the temperature. The ocean seems to still mourn the loss of its people.
Memorial Arch at the Door of No Return.
These life size effigies graced a home nearby; gorgeous, expressive, real. Their role is to ward off evil spirits, perhaps it is purely decorative, perhaps effective.
After my initial day’s introduction to the history, good and awful, my time was spent travelling the length of the country on Benin’s only tarred road. My guide forever offering snippets of information on what we were seeing. We ventured into numerous remote areas where farmers were struggling to sustain themselves. The NGO was introducing vines, hardy and reasonably easy to grow. In time they would produce fruit, juice and raisins.
Furrows were dug to bring water, baby vines planted beside the yams, red dust flying, hope was cultivated. The crop took to the dry ground and flourished under the farmer’s care.
150 vines had been sent from the Cape Winelands three months prior and my visit formed part of a follow up and training program. How to nurture, prune and trellace. The other purpose of the visit was to find additional regions where farmers may be interested in joining the program. This meant that I was privileged enough to spend time near the Burkina Fasa and Niger borders. Here water came from wells and children had never seen white people. They dropped what they were carrying and ran crying at the sight of me, screaming ‘ghost, ghost’ in Edo.
Was my role here good or evil?
My driver Sebastien pumping petrol for the vehicle. Whilst woman nearby are seen pumping water from the well. How they get by.
My guide Yves looking very concerned about the state of the water.
This woman was walking through the land. Baby on back.
On the bridge over the Niger river between Benin and Niger. Camera in hand. Always.
Boys of Niger. Carrying wood. Fishing on the Niger River.
All along the way there were friendly people, curious young, different cultures to learn about. From tattoed faces and every day make up, to true poverty and tribal adornments.
Most Hotels are owner-managed by eccentric French escapists who have encountered the romance of Africa and years later, cannot leave. They served fresh salad, intricate sorbet and gourmet delicacies that seem out of place here. Rooms throughout were simple, a bed with cotton sheet, private shower/toilet wet room, cold water only, welcome air-conditioning.
In every centre the trading goes on around the clock. Scooters and push carts, cooking, talking, moving. Street food I found impossible to resist, and some that I couldn’t partake of. Such as the chickens and pythons seen for sale below.
Yet the warmth and hospitality resounds in the rejoicing of Africa, and places like these are there to be enjoyed. Below Agouti being prepared for lunch. (Albeit not for me.)
Among it all the most fascinating was an impromptu visit to an animists’ house. Sacrifices to the ancestors throughout. A religion I still know little about.
Elsewhere Catholic influenced Churches and Muslim mosques. Side by side, there is no animosity to be found here.
With my project complete I returned to Cotonou for a regroup with the ex-pats and project leaders. There was bubbly with them in a posh Hotel, shopping for Tuareg jewelry, a Benin bronze leopard that needed a new home and much walking of the streets.
It was a different me that boarded my flight home. I had been seduced by the real Africa. Tasted her very essence. I had nothing but respect for her.
Embedded in my soul, I thanked Benin for reminding me that even though my love for International travel lives forever strong, its Africa that holds my wandering heart.
This is my submission to the Travelstart Blogger Experience Contest.