Archive for Benin

Apr
2007
05

Places to visit in Benin

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We are often asked what sights we think are worth seeing, which places we found interesting and what would we recommend doing.  These are our thoughts. There is much more detail in our Journal for Benin.

The details may change so we suggest you check with a good guide book. We prefer the “Rough Guide” series because they are well written and kept up to date.  You can get more information on www.roughguides.com

Ganvié

Ganvie

Ganvié is a fascinating village of 20,000 people constructed on stilts in the middle of a huge shallow lake. There are schools, clinics, shops, restaurants and hotels. The locals have organised a co-operative which takes tourists in boats to visit the village and show people the sights. It is a magical place and well worth a visit. You can get there easily by taxi from Cotonou or Porto Novo.  

Ouidah 

The old slave trading town of Ouidah (pronounced Wee Dah) is fascinating and well worth a visit.  At various times there were British, French, Portuguese, and Danish forts operating in Ouidah as the collection and embarkation points for large numbers of slaves being shipped to the Americas and other colonies.  These slaves were usually prisoners of war taken by the Kings of the local Dan-Homey Empire in their wars with neighbouring African kingdoms.  The Europeans bought these prisoners in exchange for iron, and guns.  Apparently one muzzle loading cannon cost 15 able bodied men or 25 healthy women.  The old Portuguese fort has been restored and is now a good museum showing the development of Benin and Ouidah and the slave trade. 

This coast of Africa used to be called the Slave Coast and there are various modern and touching monuments to the wholesale trade in human beings from Africa, which is called the Diaspora.  The Slave Road is a four kilometre long sandy road lined by palm trees and bushes from the forts to the beach, lined with emblems of the former African kings and commemorative plaques to the slaves.  There is also the “tree of forgetfulness” which men had to walk around three times in shackles to emphasise that they had to forget about their former lives, their country and their family which they would never see again.  For some reason women were made to walk around the tree five times. 

Slave Arch Ouida coast Benin 

On the beach there is a large evocative modern arch where the slaves were embarked on the slave ships. 

Voodoo Python Ouidah Benin 

Voodoo is still widely practiced in Benin.  So there is a famous snake temple in Ouidah.  One building houses many pythons which the faithful have draped around their necks to focus the spirits and cure ills or bring good fortune.

Abomey

Abomey is the home of the restored Royal Palaces of the ancient Kings of Benin.  The site is now a World Heritage site and houses several large mud brick buildings holding artefacts from the time.  There are spears and swords and old muskets and some of the old European cannons which the kings bought over the years.  One striking exhibit is the throne mounted on human skulls to emphasise the power of the king over potential enemies. 

Porto Novo

Porto Novo Benin 

Porto Novo is the Capital of Benin.  Despite being the seat of government it is quite a small town.  The old buildings of the former French administration are arranged around a nice grass square and these now house the Benin government offices.  The country used to be called Dahomey in the French colonial days.  The French invested heavily in the countries they colonised and most people now speak French fluently as well as several local languages.  Even before colonisation the French missionaries set up schools so the people of Dahomey were in demand throughout West Africa as administrators.  Consequently Benin is now a predominantly Christian country. 

Porto Novo Cathedral Benin

Porto Novo has a large stone build Christian cathedral.
 
Cotonou

Cotonou is a large city with almost one million inhabitants.  It is not a spectacular city with few monuments or historical buildings and few big buildings over seven or eight stories.  However the roads were paved, there were pavements and street lighting.  The locals we met were universally friendly and helpful. 

 

 

Categories : Benin, Facts
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Mar
2005
08

Benin

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The bright sunlight sparkled on the ripples of water as we moved quickly over the blue surface of the shallow lake in a local pirogue. We swept past fishermen in dug out canoes as they threw their spreading nets onto the surface to catch the abundant small silvery fish in the lake. Our gentle wake spread small waves against palm fronds stuck in lines into the mud of the lake bottom to create enclosures trapping fish as they grew. We were soon out of sight of the low lying land, alone on the immense blue lake reflecting the bright blue sky. Distant structures slowly emerged from the heat haze. Wooden walled huts with palm and reed thatched roofs. As we grew nearer we saw that the huts were built on stilts rising out of the lake. The whole village of Ganvié, with 20,000 inhabitants, was built in the lake with rows of houses forming channels rather than streets. Every adult and most children owned their own dugout canoe and the transport within the village and to the lake shore was by boat. The village market was made up of canoes laden with colourful fruit and veg and other household articles tied together in a floating raft of traders. Customers paddled up, inspected the produce, haggled, passed the time of day then paddled back to their houses. The village had been established here in the middle of the lake three hundred years ago when the inhabitants were fleeing from encroaching armies. This is one of the most picturesque places in Benin and well worth a visit. The locals have set up a sort of co-operative of boat owners who will take visitors out to the village and show them around.

We were in Benin to attend the 45th annual conference of the West African College of Surgeons, held in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. There were eminent surgeon delegates from all over West Africa and many parts of the world including Germany, UK and USA. The bright red academic gowns and blue hats of the Fellows of the College made the opening ceremony a very bright and spectacular event. The week was crammed with lectures from delegates and of course meetings of the association’s committees.

Cotonou is a large city with almost one million inhabitants. It is not a spectacular city with few monuments or historical buildings and few big buildings over seven or eight stories. However the roads were paved, there were pavements and street lighting. While we were there we had electricity and water 24 hours per day and we enjoyed having hot water in our hotel, which was a novelty for us. One striking and pleasing feature was that that the locals we met were universally friendly and helpful and didn’t ask for money.

We decided to take the opportunity to see a bit more of Benin, which lies between Togo and Nigeria. We were intrigued by the old slave trading town of Ouidah (pronounced Wee Dah). At various times there were British, French, Portuguese, and Danish forts operating in Ouidah as collection and embarkation points for large numbers of slaves being shipped to the Americas and other colonies. These slaves were usually prisoners of war taken by the Kings of the local Dan-Homey Empire in their wars with neighbouring African kingdoms. The Europeans bought these prisoners in exchange for iron, and guns. Apparently one muzzle loading cannon cost 15 able bodied men or 25 healthy women. The old Portuguese fort has been restored and is now a good museum showing the development of Benin and Ouidah and the slave trade. This coast of Africa used to be called the Slave Coast and there are various modern and touching monuments to the wholesale trade in human beings from Africa, which is called the Diaspora. The Slave Road is a four kilometre long sandy road lined by palm trees and bushes from the forts to the beach, lined with emblems of the former African kings and commemorative plaques to the slaves. There is also the “tree of forgetfulness” which men had to walk around three times in shackles to emphasise that they had to forget about their former lives, their country and their family which they would never see again. For some reason women were made to walk around the tree five times, but Margaret can’t remember why. On the beach there is a large evocative modern arch where the slaves were embarked on the slave ships. In 1802 Denmark became the first European nation to abolish the slave trade permanently, followed in 1807 by Britain. Between 1819 and 1867 Royal Navy ships patrolled this coast arresting the slave ships of other nations and releasing the people in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Voodoo is still widely practiced in Benin. The adherents believe that there is one supreme being called Mawu and that there are various spirits or voodoos associated with him. Some voodoos are associated with trees or the sky or snakes. Shrines are seldom built for Mawu as he is present in all living and natural things. However shrines are sometimes built to focus on the spirits. So there is a famous snake temple in Ouidah which we visited. Since it is a holy place we had to take off our shoes. One building houses many pythons which the faithful have draped around their necks to focus the spirit and cure ills or bring good fortune. Out of respect Margaret agreed to have a large black, brown and olive python draped around her neck to protect her on her onward journey through Benin.

We wanted to travel inland as far as time permitted but we only managed to get to Abomey, about 75km in land from Cotonou. The road was paved and good all the way so we made good progress, passing pineapple plantations. Pineapples were in season so there were hundreds of road side stalls selling mountains of pineapples for a few pence each. We passed cars and trucks heavily loaded with pineapples all heading to the markets of Cotonou and the coast. We also saw people selling game animals like rabbits and birds to passing travellers. They would hold up a couple of dead rabbits to let you see what was on offer. Some people were selling bush rats. These are large brown or grey rat like herbivorous animals which apparently taste quite good.

Abomey is the home of the restored Royal Palaces of the ancient Kings of Benin. The site is now a World Heritage site and houses several large mud brick buildings holding artefacts from the time. There are spears and swords and old muskets and some of the old European cannons which the kings bought over the years. One striking exhibit is the throne mounted on human skulls to emphasise the power of the king over potential enemies. It is a practice reminiscent of putting the heads of criminals on the walls of the Tower of London, which happened at about the same sort of time.

Our final port of call was to Porto Novo, the Capital of Benin. Despite being the seat of government it is quite a small town. The old buildings of the former French administration are arranged around a nice grass square and now house the Benin government offices. The country used to be called Dahomey in the French colonial days. The French invested heavily in the countries they colonised and most people now speak French fluently as well as several local languages. Even before colonisation the French missionaries set up schools so the people of Dahomey were in demand throughout West Africa as administrators. Consequently Benin is now a predominantly Christian country. Porto Novo has a large stone build cathedral and we were there when it was packed with a huge and enthusiastic congregation who sang so loudly and vigorously that they could be heard at some distance away.

One aspect of road transport in Benin which fascinated us was the fuel retail system. In the inhabited areas, every couple of hundred metres there was a rickety table with glass bottles of petrol and diesel on display. Sometimes the table was a rough wooden platform with a palm thatch roof over it. On the platform were large glass carboys holding four or five gallons of petrol, for cars; one litre sized bottles, for motorbikes and coke bottles full of petrol and oil mixtures for two stroke moped engines. To fill up a car you pulled off the road to one of these stalls and the sales person would heft one of these huge glass flasks up and manually poor the contents into the tank. There must be petrol pumps somewhere in Cotonou, but we didn’t see them. There were hundreds of moped taxis in Cotonou. This is actually quite sensible, why use a car to transport one person and a driver when a moped will do the job at a fraction of the cost. If you are really hard up you can try to get two passengers on the pillion seat.

We were in Benin when the president of Togo died and the military installed his son, closing the borders and cutting off communication links. After international protests the parliament changed the constitution of Togo to make this move legal. However there were riots and civil unrest in Togo and increased regional tension. Since we were only about 50km from the border with Togo we took a bit of interest, but apart from seeing a few truck loads of armed Benin soldiers in steel helmets and combat kit we were not affected.

Categories : Benin, Journal
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Mar
2005
08

PortoNovo

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PortoNovo

Porto Novo is the Capital of Benin

Categories : Benin, Pictures
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