Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Benin Republic Palaces, Grand Popo and Ganvie Stilt Village

Four days from March 7 to 10 were spent in Benin Republic, the country just to the west of Nigeria. I had been there before on a driving trip to Ghana but we really just passed through, stopping in Cotonou to drop off our steward and meet his family. This trip was to visit the some of Benin’s palaces and the stilt village of Ganvie and was organized by Sheryl and Gord, members of the Nigerian Field Socety.

I have to start by saying thanks to Lynn for letting me take the piece that she wrote up for her family and friends and slightly modify it for use on my blog. I have not had a chance to post on the trip but want to document it. The pictures are mine but 95% of the text is from Lynn. Thanks a bunch.

We left on Saturday morning in a nice 20-passenger air-conditioned bus, with police escort front and back. The road from Lagos to the border is known for hold-ups, apparently, but having the escort eliminates that problem. Unfortunately, the cops do their share of "hold-ups" as we discovered with the police checkpoints on the way back. It was crazy at the border, mobs of people and vendors everywhere. Two of the 20 people in our group had to dropout at that point, friends Kevin and Susan, because Susan didn't have a re-entry visa for Nigeria. So, they had to get back on the bus and go back to Lagos. Once we were all through customs, we reloaded into two 10-passenger vans. The AC was minimal, so the ride became pretty hot at points. We drove through the Benin coastal city of Cotonou, which seemed like a smaller, but just as dirty, version of Lagos. Then we headed north, and made our first stop at Allada, a little village of rutted dirt roads where we visited the King's Palace. The king wasn't around, but one of his family members agreed to show us around, though he couldn't let us into all of the palace buildings because he didn't have permission. Benin is a French-speaking country, so we were fortunate to have two people in our group who are fluent in French and interpreted for us throughout the trip when needed. Our "guide" in Allada, a bare-chested older gentleman missing a few front teeth (see pic below), explained the history of the local kings of that particular place who were all represented by bas-relief symbols (flattened forms which give an exaggerated perception of depth when viewed from a particular vantage point) on the outer walls. Each king chose his symbol to represent his ruling philosophy.

Since voodoo is a recognized religion in Benin, the palaces always include a number of structures in which an object of worship, called a fetish, is placed. A fetish, which can be a potion or object, is believed to hold the spirits' power. Then priests, called juju men, are consulted to communicate with the spirits. The fetish hut was a large round tin roof structure and the entrance was very low to the ground. We were not allowed to enter the fetish hut in Allada but if we were we would have had to kneel down and almost get on your hands and knees to enter. The adjacent building (left of the fetish), which was open, was the king's meeting room, containing the king's chair along with a few other chairs for guests. All were covered in a leopard-skin print, but we weren’t sure if that was the real thing. The door on this room had simple carvings on them.

I just like this picture of me so I posted it! ; )

You should know that most "palaces" in Africa isn't anything like the European version that we might tend to imagine when we hear the word. The palaces we saw were a series of buildings made of the red clay from the area. Some buildings were for the king, some for his wives, some for worship, etc., and all situated on grounds surrounded by red clay walls. In Allada, the palace had been painted a pale pink, but those further north were just made, and reconstructed, from the unadorned red clay.

From Allada, we headed to Abomey, stopping about 9 km out to visit the Parc Archeologique d'Agongointo, which has only been open for nine months. They have been excavating ancient hiding places there that were used by warriors in the 1700s. The warriors of that time dug a network of deep holes throughout their kingdom from which to surprise their enemies. They would allow their enemies to trespass onto their land, then come out of the holes to attack them. Some were quite large, more like manmade caves, and some had antechambers extending from the main chamber. About a dozen of us when down into one of the holes. The guide made us all come down into the dark before turning on the lights. Then you could see the even deeper chambers that extended from it. The guide said the warriors would sometimes allow the enemy into the first hole -- maybe the enemies began to take the offensive after having been surprised a few times -- but then would come at them from the deeper holes. They discovered these rooms when they were building a road through Agongointo and the ground collapsed beneath the bulldozer. Until then, the stories of the holes had been passed down through folklore.

In Abomey, a town of about 80,000, we stayed at the Chez Monique, which was a bit rustic, but nice, especially the bar/lobby area. That building and some outdoor pavilions were on the main property grounds, which had the feel of a walled-in garden. There were many plants and trees, and the woodcarvings of some local artists were standing among the trees, or in the case of some masks, attached to them. Our rooms were in another walled-in property located about a block down a red-dirt alley. The building itself was set up nicely in a U-shape, with a wide veranda wrapping around in front of the rooms, which all faced the courtyard. The rooms themselves were plain with a bed or two, decked out with mosquito nets, a small armoire, and a bathroom with a shower but no shower curtain. That is standard from what we've seen. Everything in the bathroom was expected to get wet, I guess. When we arrived, there was no running water, so they brought big containers of water to each room so you could have a bucket shower. They promised the water would be on at 8, but also said they were serving dinner at 8. Some of us were torn. We were totally sweaty and grimy after the long day's journey. Most of us opted for the bucket shower, which worked surprisingly well. You just had to get used to the cool temperature. The water wasn't much warmer when they did get it going. Back on the porch of the lobby, we had a few beers -- the local choices are Flag and La Beninoise, both of which are pretty good. Dinner was grilled whole chicken, spaghetti with tomato sauce, rice, fries, and some mix of vegetables with cabbage and carrots. It all tasted very good.

After dinner we went for a walk and I snapped a picture of the young man eating dinner and selling fuel by the bottle.
We stopped for a few beers and just hung out.

After breakfast the next morning (very good French bread and so-so omelets), we went to tour two ancient palaces (no pictures allowed), both much larger than the one in Allada. Just as in Allada, the main buildings were decorated with bas-relief sculptures used to tell stories before there was a written language… as late as the late 1800s (so we were told)! Anyway, some of the bas-reliefs showed men in battle, and sometimes the Amazons in battle. One showed one naked man bent over and another standing behind him with a small ball in his hands. The guide said enemies who were captured were sometimes tortured by having balls of clay shoved up their a-hole! Unfortunately we could not take pictures! Inside the buildings, there were carved wooden thrones from some of the kings. Some were simple bench seats curved up at the end, but finished with carvings and mounted atop carved stands. One throne of a king who really wanted to make his power known had his throne mounted at the base on four human skulls. What was particularly interesting in some of the buildings were replicas of French newspapers from the late 1800s telling of France's colonizing efforts and meetings with the king. We were allowed to go into the fetish huts in the first palace we visited. We also were allowed to enter a hut that was the tomb of one king. He was said to have had 2000 wives, 100 of which opted to take poison so they could accompany him to the grave. Eventually, 41 were chosen for that honor. They had a tomb hut, too, for their spirits that was connected to the king's tomb by a tunnel so he could have company from time to time. To enter the king's hut, we had to remove our shoes and any women who were menstruating were not to go in. Only our guide stayed out, so no secrets there. Inside there was a bed with tattered coverings and pillows, a raggedy rug, and cloth covering a place where meals still are sometimes set for the spirits of the king and his wives. Since the actual museum guide couldn't enter, Barbara, one of the translators among us, asked our tour guide questions about the tomb. At one point, she said he appeared to be making things up. The second palace we visited was that of King Gbehanzin (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the last independent monarch of the Dahomey Kingdom. The Kingdom consisted of 12 kings who ruled from 1625 to 1900. Gbehanzin was eventually exiled to Martinique after having resisted the French as long as he could. In the late 1970s, he was declared a national hero and a large statue of him stands in the town square at the entrance to Abomey.

Then off to lunch...
Then to Guezo' palace... just to see the outside.
Then off to another palace, with more bas-relief paintings and Benin crafts for sale. Each king has his own symbol.
Kids playing Foos Ball, a favorite past time in all of Africa!
Statue of King Gbehanzin in the center of town (Goho Square)...

Later in the day, we went to a market where fruits, vegetables, fabric, and other goods were sold. In the back, there was a voodoo section with piles of dead birds, reptiles, monkey skulls, and some live animals in cages, including an enormous rat and some birds of prey, which was very sad. We took a look and left, and most everyone was a little sickened by it. On the way through the market, there was a foosball table surrounded by boys. One boy appeared to be in charge of the table, taking on challengers. Our friend Jonathan stepped up to play. The boy threw a coin on the table, and Jonathan threw down his to match it. Somehow it was established they were playing best of five goals. The kid won easily, 4 to 1. Then Dan took the challenge and hung in a little better, but in the end the score was 3 to 2. The table was rough, and the handles on the rods were big round wooden balls, kind of like doorknobs. Here are some photos and a video.
Voodoo section of the market..-

Sunday evening, we had dinner on the terrace of another hotel that our tour guide was affiliated with, but that didn’t have enough rooms for our group. Before dinner, a group of African men set up kind of a drumming circle below the terrace and danced singly or in pairs, while the rest of the group sang and chanted. Two men removed their shirts and used their hands to beat out a rhythm on their chests. They are very fit and the movements were fluid. Sheryl, who organized the trip with her husband, was enticed to join in the dancing at one point, throwing in her own moves, which one of the dancers copied with ease.

Monday morning we packed up and drove a short distance to a spot where we could board a train that would take us to Grand Popo, a city on the Atlantic coast very near the Togo border. The train consisted to two engines and two cars. The first car was built in 1922 and the second had been reconstructed to match it. The first car has a sleeper room with a double bed, a toilet, a tiny kitchen, and a common area that had two sets of bench seats with tables between them. The roof is rounded and everything is made from wood. The windows just have drop-down panels, and so we rode open-air through the countryside. The second car is open with a bar in one corner and about a dozen wicker chairs for seating. Behind the bar, there was doorway to a viewing platform on the back. We later learned that the train had two engines because second gear didn’t work in one of them and the brakes didn’t work on the other. Combined, they had it covered. Top speed for the train was only about 35 mph, so it took us about three hours to get to our final station. Along the way, we stopped at one other station along the line. I’m not sure if the line has been abandoned and now only used because this British guy bought this little train to run on it, or if it’s used for other purposes. Riding through the countryside was relaxing and fascinating. We passed many small villages, some with houses made of the red clay or red clay bricks and some made of grass and palm fronds. In Benin, 85 percent of the people support themselves through farming. We saw many people clearing ground, harvesting pineapple, and other crops. When the train approached, little kids would run out from the villages, waving and smiling at us. Older people would look up from what they were doing and wave, too.

At the end of line, we regretfully boarded the vans again and continued for another hour to Grand Popo. The Auberge Hotel there is right on the beach overlooking the ocean. It consists of a bar lobby area, a few two-room bungalows, and more rooms in two other buildings, one of which is a grand-looking two-story structure with a porch wrapped around the bottom and a balcony wrapped around the top floor. We stayed in a bungalow that had a small but clean bathroom and a queen size bed with mosquito netting. The owner said the buildings were colonial, circa 1930s, and had been refurbished. The beach was beautiful to look at, but a little more difficult to enjoy. It dropped fairly steeply to the water, making it somewhat awkward to just have a walk along the water. You had to decide to go in or just enjoy the view from the upper beach. You have to time the moment to get quickly out past the break, and then time the moment you want to come back in so that you get ahead of the waves and run up the beach before they smack you. It was deep just a little way out, which is all the further we went. The water was warm and clear, so it was refreshing.
The hotel set up tables for our dinner near the edge of the high point of the beach. There was a full moon, and a good breeze, so it turned out to be quite enjoyable. They grilled kabobs of fish, beef, and shrimp with sides of fries, rice, couscous, and salad, and crepes with caramel sauce and pineapple for dessert We listened to the story of the one of the owners who had bought a military jeep in Belgium and drove it down through France and Spain to Gibraltar, where it was shipped over to North Africa. Then he drove it down the west coast of Africa

Tuesday morning, we began the trip back to Lagos, stopping at the stilt village of Ganvie. It is a small city, population 30,000, built over the water of the lagoon. All of the houses are on stilts, as are beauty shops, a medical clinic, gas stations, churches, bars, etc. People travel everywhere they need to go by handmade canoes. The men there fish and the women take the fish to market to sell each day. They have a market on the water and they also canoe to a market on land. Each family has a plot of water that is theirs to fish, much as farmers have a plot of land. Our guide for this visit, a man named Christopher who said he grew up in Ganvie, said it wouldn’t be apparent to us which part of the water belonged to whom, but the families know the boundaries well. He said the government at one point was going to try to tax the people of Ganvie for their fishing lands, but they resisted, saying how can we pay for something that belonged to our ancestors? Then, the government sent police to try to force them to comply, but still they resisted, and the government finally gave up. Christopher manages a hotel on stilts in Ganvie, Hotel Gemain, and took us there for lunch. He had told us that all families have canoes for the father, the mother, the boys, and the girls. We saw many children in school uniforms paddling themselves back to school when we were leaving. They had been home for lunch.

Checking the fish traps. Fishing with nets
Market on your doorstep...
Kid paddling his boat made of jerry cans back to school.
Sailing... Sailing...
Getting the fish from the traps (with sleeping child.
We ended up about two hours behind schedule, and didn’t get to the border and finish our processing back into Nigeria until close to 5. Many say that the border is the only place in West Africa where there are such problems because the officials are looking for ways to hassle people to get money. We saw Nigerians – Africans, anyway – passing their passports through the customs window with money, as if that’s standard procedure to avoid problems. On the way back, back in the big bus with police escorts, we were able to drive through many of the police checkpoints without stopping. But there were big backups at the first few. The checkpoints are just a shakedown in which drivers are basically expected to hand the police money. We were glad we were not caravanning in our own cars. As it was, the traffic was a nightmare most of the way. At one point, the lead vehicle decided to take a detour through some of the Lagos streets (this is mainland Lagos) to avoid the gridlock on the main lanes. But then we were caught weaving in and out of narrow streets packed with people and motorcycles and other cars. In such situations, it’s helpful to have the police escort because they will, at times, stop and get out and yell at other drivers to get out of the way.
This trip to Benin was great. Thanks to Sheryl and Gordon for organizing it for folks of the Nigerian Field Society.