Day 9 |
Oct 10, 2012

Cotonou, Benin

By Olga Stavrakis, Anthropologist

Co-ordinates: N 06o 20’ 52”, E 02o 25’ 13"
Weather: Mostly sunny, warm

Today was a surprise. A light rain dribbled down the windows in the early morning as we waited off the coast of Benin for a delayed pilot. The signs for a good start were not auspicious. Nevertheless, by the time we docked and climbed aboard our rather luxurious air-conditioned bus, the sun had come out and a cool breeze wafted in from the sea.

Our first stop was at the Sacred Forest just outside the historical town of Ouidah, home of the infamous fort once pivotal in the slave trade. The sacred forest is a grove of old trees with a central giant Kola tree representing the clan of the python whose ancestry is rooted in this grove. We were welcomed by the “king” of the forest and two women who may have been his sisters. He is apparently a “graduate” of the local monastery and then elected by his clan to represent his ancestors and tend to the different Voodoos or spirit houses in the forest.

Voodoo is a religion worshiping a supreme creator deity who is reached through ancestors and medium spirits who serve as go-betweens. In contrast to the voodoo of the Caribbean, where it is associated with black magic and evil spells, here in Africa it is a religion that brings the forces of nature within human control. It is everywhere and overlaps with Christianity and Islam.

The fort at Ouidah is now a museum of slavery showing the process of capture and incarceration from the interior of the continent to the sad departure on the beautiful Atlantic beach a few kilometres away.

From the fort we drove to the beach itself, following the same path the slaves took in the past, ending at the monumental Gate of No Return that grandly commemorates the historical human tragedy.

From there we rolled and bounced over a very uneven sandy road to a lovely restaurant called “Casa del Papa” situated on a beautiful reddish sand beach. After a delicious buffet lunch and drinks we headed for the town of Calavie, passing miles and miles of shanties and small business stalls selling everything from used kitchenware to “haute couture” hand-sewn dresses.

Calavie lies along the banks of the shallow lake Nokue, which extends north into Nigeria and serves as a lively route for all kinds of commodities including oil from informal sources. There we boarded boats that took us to the little village of Ganvie, built on stilts right over the water.

Local history has it that the residents escaped to this lake in the 17th century to escape the slavers of Dahomey who were unable to cross the lake to reach them. The village is known for its active religious life, which includes Vodun, Muslim and Christian faiths.

At the local community centre we were treated to a spectacular performance of ancestral spirit dances called Egungun, which were performed by men in amazing costumes of brilliant colours. The costumes cover the whole body and fan out as the dancer twirls and leaps, while another man makes sure that the fabric does not touch the spectators as it could cause them spiritual harm.

The dances are performed for us as theatre, but they are really religious events that local people take very seriously and which embody rituals that balance the forces of nature. The combination of colour, drumming and movement creates a profound visual and visceral experience that gives the impression of power and of peace.