Published: November 18th 2006November 14th 2006 November 11
Lacrustine village of Ganvie
: We crept into Benin at twilight, after hours of frustrating travel to the East frontier of Ghana and across Togo. The country appeared unremarkable at first sight: a plain of grassy earth punctuated by a few modest mud structures and tall palm trees ending, rather abruptly, at the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Guinea. The chartered taxi that we were traveling in dropped us in the nondescript 'burbs of Cotonou, the tiny francophone country's largest city. Here, hundreds of zemijohns (motorcycle taxis in various degrees of upkeep) thundered down the streets shrouded by a brown haze of exhaust and dust. We quickly found a few willing drivers and sped off through the congestion and chaos to the Jonquet district of Cotonou. After finding a spartan but tidy room at a nearby pension and utilizing Manuela's French skills to negotiate a fair price, we ventured out in the heart of the city.
The streets of Cotonou teem with activity and people. Flashy nightclubs blare R&B music. Restaurants are crammed with customers. High rise office buildings and glitzy billboards stand silently amidst the eternal traffic and eye-stinging pollution. I'm sure our metabolic rate skyrocketed just walking from the
restaurant where we dined to the quiet backstreet where our pension was located. November 12
: A quiet breakfast (an omelette served with a tasty baguette and coffee) allowed me to enjoy a much needed moment of relaxation after a hectic week in Accra.
And then there was Ganvie.
We arrived at the docks of Abomey-Calavi just after 9 AM, while the market women were still unloading flapping fish and an array of other aquatic life from their dugout canoes en route to the market in town. Ganvie, a lacrustine stilt village built two meters above water, had been on all of our lists of "must see" destinations in Benin, and a personally much awaited experience. We boarded a canoe and our guide began the one hour row to the village. As we watched boats float past, laden with baskets of fruit, clothes, and fish, I recalled the history of the village. More than three hundred years ago, the Fon people had encroached on the territories of these peoples, finally pushing them all the way to the Gulf. To escape their enemies, the villagers began building their settlements over the lagoons of southern Benin, allowing them to escape
the aggression of the Fon (Fon religious belief prevented their warriors from venturing onto water).
We arrived at the village, which seemed more like a small town, with hundreds of bamboo huts jutting from the murky water, and a light "traffic" of townsfolk in canoes maneuvering through its myriad canals and waterways. As expected, many of the people here did not want to be photographed (and I was trying to respect their wishes) so I have very few pictures of people but many of the village itself. Drifting through the calm waters, waving to passing women on their way to the floating market or children shyly peering from behind the bamboo walls seemed almost like taking a step back in time, save for the sun bleached Coca-Cola sign in the center of the swamp and a few other snap happy obrunfoo.
Back in hectic Cotonou much later that day, we felt as though we had taken the leap back into another world. Cars honked, motorcycles screeched, and the continuous flood of people stormed towards their destinations. Exhausted from the sudden change of pace, we spent the remainder of the day in our quiet neighborhood in Jonquet, marveling at
Passing women exchange curious looks
enormous mosques and old colonial buildings. November 13
: Ventured into the market in Dantokpa, which was like diving head first into a cacophonous circus of chaos and commodities. Vendors selling grilled rat set up shop as a man peddling through crowded alleyways wrestled with the dozen or so live chckens tied to the handlebars, seat, and basket of his old bicycle. Women displaying brilliantly colored pagnes of local fabric chatted with friends selling gaudy fake gold jewelry and pumpkin sized bras. My favorite section was the spice market, where the pungent odors of hundreds of spices wafted through the air. Each spice was piled mountain-high in a large basket and displayed next to the others, creating a colorful (and strong-smelling) collage of hues and textures. After wandering through the market for the better part of the day (it's huge!), we returned to our pension, rested, and set out to enjoy the nightlife of Benin one last time. November 14
: Another long day of border crossings. Arrived back in Lomé in time for a good lunch and a couple of sugary apple sodas. Eiren and Manuela decided to stay in the Togolese capital awhile longer to visit the kitschy
voodoo mart so, hailing a mototaxi, I said my goodbyes and headed to the frontier. In the Togolese customs building, I'm summoned to an out of the way office by a border official, who flipped through my book with disinterest before shooting me a smug look and asking "how much longer do you want your trip to Togo to last?" He read my fatigued face exceedingly well. I left a couple dollars lighter and humped across the border to Aflao.
Reaching the tro-tro station, I was, as always, confronted with the difficult task of choosing a dilapidated bucket of bolts to rattle and jar my body back to Accra. I ended up opting to shell out a few extra cedis to climb aboard a more spacious looking vehicle that seemed almost full. And yet, even after a few months of practice with transport in Africa, it seemed as though I had not learned my lesson. The few extra cedis were enough to deter other potential passengers and, as the other tro-tros puttered out of the station, I began second guessing my decision. A well-dressed man who was sitting next to me offered reassurances as he wiped beads of sweat
from his forehead and warmly started up a conversation. Eventually, a few more Accra-bound souls boarded the bus, including one very hefty woman toting a large, dripping bag - the contents of which slowly emptied on to my shoes and side throughout the journey - and a few live chickens. We departed at sundown.
An odd situation ensued as we stopped for gas on the far outskirts of Accra. The mate hopped out of the vehicle as usual, headed to the pump, and began refilling the vehicle (while it is still running, as always). Near the back of the vehicle, my head was swimming from exhaustion, vapors, and the unrelenting heat. Manuela and Eiren's tro-tro pulled up at the next pump over, and I poked my head out the window to share a tired smile and shrug my shoulders. And then a mean shout redirected my attention. Someone had incited a fight outside our vehicle, and the mate and driver were mixed up in a brawl. The passengers of the vehicle crowded to the windows to watch, and I asked the well-dressed man about the commotion. He gave a flimsy response that trailed off without providing any real insight
into the matter. The screaming continued in a mix of tribal languages - none of which I could understand - and the shoving, punching, and scraping continued without abate. Finally, the driver jumped back into the tro-tro and his mate slid into the side as it rumbled out of the station. Two men clung to the back for as long as they could - raining punches and fierce language on the bus as women shrieked and squirmed inside - before dropping off and melting back into the darkness of night. The mate looked at me as he seated himself and flashed a quick smile as if to silently communicate a victory. His comfort did not reach the women in the back of the vehicle, who continued to wail and scream. Apparently, the men at the gas station who had been hurling fists and insults had cast a curse on our ride. One woman began belting out prayers to Jesus. Luckily for us (although unbeknownst to the distressed women) I still had my charm from my first visit to Togo. It'd keep us safe through the rest of the journey back to the city.
Back in Accra now for finals.
Burkina Faso and Mali have been pushed off the table, but serendipitously, Ethiopia and Tanzania are on the horizon. Stay tuned.
There are more photos below