I’m sitting in a small, round room with 15 pythons of various sizes crawling over or near my feet. Two are draped around my neck, their soft, cool skin moving slowly over mine. Unbelievably, I feel completely calm. I’m in the Voodoo Python Temple in Ouidah, Benin, the tiny West African country many of my friends initially confused with Berlin in Germany. Its obscurity can be understood from its tiny population (only 11 million) and the fact that it’s so frequently overshadowed by neighbouring, enormous Nigeria.
Since my arrival, I’ve marvelled at the explosively colourful fabrics worn by men and women alike. My nine days have been fantastically full, as I’ve zipped around on motorbike taxis known as semijans to see as much as possible.
The place that’s moved me most is the historical city of Ouidah, known for both its slave memorials and its numerous Voodoo temples. Benin is the birthplace of Voodoo and the majority of the population practise its traditional customs, some alongside Islam and Christianity. “Some people go to church in the morning, and then to the Voodoo temple in the evening,” my friend Marlise tells me.
Despite the diverse faiths and creeds, there are no clashes between them and I’m repeatedly shown evidence of the incredible tolerance in this country. A Voodoo guide describes the different gods to me while a gold crucifix dangles from his neck; a man in a Muslim skullcap ushers us into a temple, across the road from the first Catholic church in West Africa. The land, I’m told, was donated to the missionaries by the Voodoo chief over 100 years ago. Tolerance exists both in Benin’s history and the contemporary peaceful manner in which its people communicate with one another.
“Welcome to the Sacred Forest,” our guide, Tchiakpe Hippolyte, tells us we enter beneath a massive canopy of branches extending from a 400-year-old tree. Birds chatter in the top branches like giggling children before exploding into flight, circling the sky and landing in the branches again.
Dispersed around the forest are statues of various gods, each bearing its own symbolism and meaning. “These are the gods of fertility, thunder, power and health,” explains Tchiakpe. I’m struck by the god of power, which balances on one leg, wearing both a moon and a sun on its upper body. Despite anyone’s religious or spiritual beliefs, there’s beauty to be found in the meaning behind Voodoo traditions.
I carry this feeling as I move through Ouidah, visiting ancient temples and Voodoo statues of all shapes and colours. The statues are interspersed throughout the greenery alongside the road, giving the drive an ethereal feeling, as if various multi-coloured gods are waving us through our journey.
“That’s where the slaves were kept before they were taken away,” explains Marlise. An old double-storey cement building lies crumbling behind looming palm trees. Inside we find cramped rooms whose walls still seem to resonate with the barbarity they once witnessed. The room was supposedly meant to resemble the belowdecks of a ship.
Not far away from the slave house is a large archway with images of the first missionaries stretching towards the sky. The sea’s spread out behind it, visible beneath the arch. A car pulls up and a group of nuns get out, standing by the arch and conversing before moving towards the sea, where they stand quietly, talking among themselves. A largely Christian community in Benin regards the arrival of the missionaries as a time of enlightenment. Yet it was a time that brought with it subjugation and dehumanisation for many Beninese.
I’m reminded of this by the “Gateway of No Return” which stands not far away from here. This massive memorial faces the Atlantic Ocean, evoking images of chained people walking towards the sea. The name comes from the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were forced onto boats here, with no possibility of ever returning. This point would have marked the end of a 3,2km march from Ouidah – the last African soil the slaves would ever feel beneath their feet.
“There was a place called the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness’,” Marlise tells me. “The slaves had to walk around it in order to forget everything about their lives before they were slaves.” The sight of the memorial, with the Voodoo temples now sprung up alongside it, confirms that the Tree of Forgetfulness didn’t work.
It’s hard to believe I’m in the same country when I visit Dantokpa Market the next day. However, Benin promises diversity and I find it in the sensory-shaking, ordered chaos of this largest market in West Africa. When Marlise’s twin sister Marthe told me they sell everything here, she wasn’t exaggerating. I clutch her hand like a toddler as she expertly weaves us between the pulsating crowds. A young lady balances a basket on her head carrying huge, brightly-coloured carrots that stick out like a crazy hairdo. Another dangles clothes from coat-hangers, enclosing her face in a moving change-room from which two eyes peep out at potential customers.
We buy fried “cookies” made from grated banana and Marthe leads me to a bridge that offers a moment’s respite from the chaos of clothes, food, electronics, jewellery, cosmetics and shoes. Cars rush past and semijans whizz beneath us like bees on a sugar rush.
I love African markets, largely because I feel both alive and inspired in them, awestruck by people’s deep, innovative drive to make something of incredibly taxing economic situations. I feel the same admiration when I visit Ganvie, a “floating” community living on stilted houses in the waters of Lake Nokoué.
This river community has been here “for as long as Benin” and its 20 000 survive on subsistence fishing. We take a semijan to the river, where we discuss a fee with a boat driver. Soon we’re in the water being propelled towards the architecturally inventive lives of the Ganvie residents. We pass a school, a hairdresser, a hospital and a church, while young men dive beneath the water to steady fishing net poles.
We stop at a hotel called Expotel Ganvie Chez Raphael. The manager, Avlessi Ferdinand, shows us around the rooms that overlook the water, as well as the restaurant and the mementos for sale which were made by the community. A sense of peacefulness lingers in the air here. Shy children spy on us between the wooden panels. Kingfishers fly ahead, landing on long reeds to survey the scene. A small boats glides past with a large patchwork sail, pregnant with wind that propels it across the water.
In the evening we catch a minibus back to Dantokpa before hailing another semijan to get back to Marlise and Marthe’s home. I’m astonished to see the market is just as busy as when we were there during the day. The only difference is that now, paraffin lamps light up the small stalls. “Sometimes they sleep here at night,” I’m told, once more moved by the tenacity and drive of the Beninese people.
We hop onto the semijan, which races us back at what’s become an (almost) normalised speed. Street vendors have placed green lights behind large glass bottles containing petrol to advertise their goods to passers-by. The effect is beautiful and remains the image in my mind whenever I recall Benin, long after my trip is over: effervescent green beacons lighting up the whole ride home.
“Would you go back?” I’m asked by friends, after I return to SA. “Of course,” I reply instinctively, already dreaming of my night-glowing, snake-holding, bike-riding, market-manoeuvering experiences of this tiny, yet deeply enticing West African country. “There’s still so much I need to see.
For more information on sites worth visiting in Benin, visit: https://unseenbenin.wordpress.com
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Sawubona December 2015 issue, download here (for free).
All images by Kim Harrisberg.