Our next stop was Cotonou, Benin. Wedged between Togo and Nigeria, it has one of the largest ports in West Africa. Cotonou itself is like being back in Lome, Togo. There were still the outdoor businesses along the sidewalks, the motor scooters are family cars, and the messy, grimy piles of refuse are apparent, but it is marginally more sophisticated.
For me the highlight here was our visit to the Ganvie village on stilts. A large community of approximately 30,000 people who live in houses built up on rickety stilts above the water on Lake Nokoue. It was originally created to keep the Tofinu people safe from the slave hunters. Their only means of transportation are the dug out canoes of varying shapes and sizes and the water “taxis” which are larger and have motors.
The homes and living conditions are primitive. Toilet and washing facilities are lacking. For the most part they just “go” in the water and they also bathe themselves in that water which is not looking very clean to begin with. They warned us not to trail our hands in the water! They have to get fresh water from central pipes located here and there throughout the village. They carry the water back to their homes in large open plastic containers in their canoes. The homes are built mostly from wood and corrugated tin. Entrepreneurism is alive and well, and you see women selling all manner of goods, from fruit and vegetables to clothing from their canoes.
For the most part, I saw only women or children paddling their canoes in and around the houses. Really young children at times. The men fish from their canoes, gathering their large nets which are round and weighted all around the edges. They throw them out into the water and slowly drag them back. However, I only saw one man with a fish in his net the whole time we were out there.
They do not want their pictures taken and could be quite vocal and angry if someone pointed a camera at them. I think I would not want to know what they were saying when they were shouting at us. But you have to respect their pride and I tried to take photos when they were not aware, or that did not show their faces. Some women wear huge hats that serve to hide their faces from the “tourists’, but also shade them and the baby you see so many women carrying on their backs or sitting in their laps. They took us to one solid structure where they sold souvenirs – carvings, batik, paintings, jewellery and beer. The school and a large mosque were the only other solid structures I saw out there on the lake.
The children were delightful and didn’t seem to mind being photographed – with or without clothing. They all waved and smiled and called out to us. Someone in our large motor driven canoe-typeboat, said they were saying “look white man” but I am not sure about that.
It must have been Monday :-)) because washing was hanging everywhere. They cook over open fires and sometimes even in their canoes.
They have their own schools out there, and we saw school children returning home, in canoes, and they all wore uniforms which were clean and pressed. I was impressed. The uniforms must be “no-iron”, because I did not see any evidence of electricity.
The language in Benin is French. Also, Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (Voodoo) and all that goes with it. To this day Vodun remains the official religion of the country, and an important part of the life of ordinary Beninese, even though they may practice another religion. Hence the mosque and the red and white striped Cathédrdale Notre Dame de Miséricorde on the mainland. (pictured below). I am so thrilled to be able to see and learn about the culture and diversity of life all around the world and realize that I am truly blessed to be having this unique experience.