The next morning we drove for 40 minutes to Abomey Calavi to visit Ganvie, a picturesque village with stilt houses on Lake Nokoué. It was founded in the 17th century by the Tofinu people to escape capturing and slavery. Everyday life revolves around the lake. The village has electricity but it is impossible to build a pipe network for running water. The boat ride to the village takes about fifteen minutes by engine. Villagers are used and indifferent to tourists except when you try to raise the camera. Street – or in this case water – photography is quite challenging in west Africa and requires a certain level of expertise to grab a scene without being cursed.
We set direction to Abomey, 3 hours drive from Abomey-Calavi. Along the way we stopped to visit a local market and tasted the most delicious pineapple in my life. This region is famous for their ananas and leaves up to the best expectations.
Abomey is the former capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey, with a population of around 100 thousand. We tried to visit a local voodoo priest in a nearby village, but he was not there and we ended up killing a couple of hours with the local kids. Vassilis and Sami even played football with the locals.
Lunch and dinner at the nearby Auberge Societe Voyageur was excellent. Shrimps, beef, pasta and the coldest beer we had during this trip. We settled for the night at Chez Edith, a cozy outfit with a friendly ambience, but without running water. Edith is sort of a local celebrity and a great hostess. To our surprise, she seemed to know who was the prime minister in Greece! The lodge is definitely a go, if you do not mind using the bucket to shower.
The next day we visited the palaces of King Ghézo and King Glélé, two of the 12 Abomey palaces. The, otherwise boring visit made me realize that local kings had a significant contribution in the slave-trade crime, exchanging human subjects for silverware, table cloth or guns. It does not make Europeans any less guilty of the crime, but it is obvious that they could have never managed without the enthusiastic cooperation of the local chiefs. The Kingdom of Dahomey (1625-1900) became a west-african empire and the palaces hosted as many as 8000 people at the peak. The palace exhibits consist mostly of European items and show a culture that was living ages behind the western and eastern civilizations of its time. It demonstrates clearly that the chiefs decided to cooperate in order to retain power and privileges.
After a quick stop in the Abomey market, we drove for the next 2 hours to Dassa Zoume.
Hotel Jeco in Dassa Zoume looks like a prison, but it is the only decent place in the area for having lunch.
On the way to Auberge chez Armand, out lodge for the night, we heard loud music. Sammy said that it was a pre-funeral ceremony. We stopped to check what’s going on and did not take more than 15 minutes and five thousand francs – offered to the son of the deceased – to get invited as guests of honor.
Funerals in Benin, as in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, are a big events. A couple of family and community gatherings are being held, to properly plan and prepare the burial. We were attending the final pre-funeral meeting where the whole community came to offer their presents and pay their respect to the deceased. A professional band with five drummers, two singers and a group of mourning women was hired for the occasion. The mourning family was actually sitting in the second row, behind the performers and mourners. A funeral in Benin is an opportunity for dancing and entertainment and looks a bid odd in the eyes of the outsider. We spent an interesting couple of hours, following the action, dancing and taking pictures. As the only white people, we received a lot of attention.
Auberge Chez Armand is a charming eco-lodge with a farm, basic but clean huts-rooms and a wonderful garden for relaxing and dining. We had hot running water, an excellent dinner and ice-cold beer, way more than what we had expected.
Next: North Benin