After a short delay getting a pilot from the harbor, we climbed onto four comfortable, air-conditioned buses for a very long and exciting day exploring the real West Africa. The city is congested with trucks carrying sacks of yams, onions and other foods into the city. Hundreds of mopeds form streams of traffic along all the main streets. Lining the sides are numerous small stalls selling tires, aluminum cooking pots, pieces of mopeds, haircuts, beds, and everything else that we normally see in supermarkets.
As we moved further out of town, the stalls got smaller, dustier, and shabbier. Many sold gasoline in large round bottles. Apparently this gasoline is much cheaper than what is sold at the gas stations as it comes from Nigeria.
The city normally has traffic gridlock but fortunately, Conrad Combrink, Director of Expeditions, had arrived well in advance and saw to all the complex arrangements including a police escort to plough a trough through the congealed traffic. Thus, we made it out into the countryside with relative ease.
Our first stop was at a busy, odoriferous and very colorful fish market on the edge of Lake Nokoue where we got into long plank boats with roofs for a trip across to the village of Ganvie located right in the middle of the large shallow lake. We motored along a sort of watery highway, filled with lots of boat traffic, most of which was by paddled dugout canoe. Colorfully dressed women paddled slender dugouts on their way to and from the market. Men tended fish farms encircled by palm fronds on both sides of the open watery lane. Some of the larger dugouts were used to throw fish nets. Water taxis carried people back and forth between the village and the fish market on the shore.
Water traffic increased as we approached the village which is a picturesque gem. The houses are all on stilts over the lake. Naked children played on small verandahs or on tiny patches of soil that seem to have been built up artificially. On the water, children as young as 4 bumped around trying to maneuver their dugouts while mothers collected drinking water from a central pipe.
Our excellent guide, Noah, explained that the people here are animists, which means they adhere to their traditional religion, which in their own language is called “voodoo.” Voodoo is not magic but a system of spiritual beliefs that try to gain a measure of control over the fickle nature of human fate. But it is also a religion built on some basic fears and the people stared with some apprehension. They definitely did not want their pictures taken, which Noah explained was because they feared that photographs weakened or “stole” their souls.
Once in the center of the village we alighted at a sort of community center where we were treated to a Voodoo dance performance. Here, everyone was friendly and very welcoming. The dancers were fully robed in colorful costume adorned with cowrie shells, small mirrors, red ribbons, masks, and round capes. They took turns whirling and leaping to the hypnotic sound of the drums. In a real Voodoo ceremony it is expected that some people fall into a trance. A shop on one side offered an unusual mixture of antique glass trade beads, small statues of copper, wooden artifacts and modern glass jewelry.
From Ganvie, we drove across an uncultivated countryside to the Atlantic coast where we turned onto a sandy road that followed along the beach. Passing through tiny fishing villages we came to a beautiful hotel where we enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch and the use of the pool. Even though we were right on the sea, we were told that swimming there was dangerous because of currents. But the pool was very refreshing.
On the way back, I was particularly moved by our stop at Ouidah, a typical village that once served as a loading area for slaves. A huge monument, called the Gate of No Return has been erected at the spot where the final parting with their native land took place.
Further inland, along the road once traveled by those who departed, we came to the Ouidah Museum that was once a fort where the slaves were kept before making their final journey. Although the local people relate the history without any animosity or rancor, to me it was quite sad to stand on this place where so many had suffered so deeply.
Our next stop was in the Sacred Forest, once the spiritual gardens of the Kings of Dahomey, the kingdom which once dominated this part of the world and the slave trade. Although it had a number of fertility statues, I was fascinated by a 300 year old Kola Nut tree. I had never seen Kola nuts before, so, together with Hans-Peter Reinthaler, our Botanist, I searched for good seeds to photograph. The Kola nut was once an important trade item with the Middle East and across the Sahara and is a relative of the Cacao, which now is a local cash crop.
On the return to the ship, we again slipped through the hubbub of the chaotic city with mopeds, reddish dust, and gnarled traffic with relative ease. Benin is a busy place and a poor one. But I left feeling that I had experienced a good sample of the incredible variety of peoples and cultures that make up West Africa and that it was warm and welcoming.