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Published: November 7th 2016
The roads of Benin vary from once-good-but-now-potholed to dirt tracks, so the going is slow. We often stop in villages, either just to walk about and talk with villagers or to set up our picnic lunch. There are always children running about, some scared by our white faces, others keen to shake a hand or wave. One lady has her tiny twin girls laid on a mat in the shade of her mud hut. She gave birth in her hut, helped by some of the older women. There is, effectively, no medical care for the villagers but mother and twins seem to be doing well.
Most houses are just round, thatched mud huts. All the villages are poor but they welcome us into their midst without seeking money or other reward. Around every village, they grow subsistence crops: sweet potatoes, yam of various kinds, maize and millet. While the families do not look malnourished, they clearly live on a very basic diet.
Their staple carbohydrate is foufou. Made from manioc yam root formed into grapefruit-size balls. It looks like raw bread dough, is eaten with whatever is available tonight, typically a vegetable based stew.
All villages have a
school nearby, which the children go to early, finishing at lunchtime to start their tasks at home.. On Fridays, the children may work on the teacher's land and in this way "pay" the otherwise unpaid teacher. The teacher may also be given gifts of food from parents. Children learn French as well as two local, tribal languages. And, of course, English.
Most villages have a church and there are a huge number of different church denominations: Pentecostal, Church of Christ, Presbyterian and so many more. In the church we visit, the ladies are practising "happy clappy" hymns, complete with a conga-like dance. In another village, ladies sit around the pastor, reading and discussing the Bible.
But Ganvie is different, its huts are on stilts and in the middle of Lake Nokwe. An extraordinary place, an African Venice of wooden houses and wooden boats. We travel in our long wooden boat, first passing fishing lakes and then shops, hairdressers, a clinic, a church and a mosque, all on stilts.
Ganvie was set up by a tribe who were fed up with attacks from other tribes, so they moved off shore. Their enemies were thus rendered powerless, as the
Voodoo they relied on for victory cannot cross water. Ganvie is thriving with boats traveling in all directions. Bigger boats offer a ferry service to the shore while smaller boats, often steered and paddled by small children, carry food, wood, shopping and fish.
We have a wooden room on stilts for the night. As the light fades so the boat traffic continues, in the dark. There is only a little solar lighting in Ganvie, the moon and stars are clear in the sky above us. We drink beer and watch the world paddle by.
In the morning we look out of our window, no glass, to see our neighbour across the small canal starting their day. The children play and wave, mum makes breakfast and smiles. Around to the right is one of the three water stations that pump up drinking water. Boats appear before dawn to fill their plastic barrels, three or four to a boat. Soon there is a queue of 23 boats. Other boats carry smartly dressed families to church and we realise it is a Sunday.
Needless to say, internet access is hard to find. The blog will be posted when next we
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