The Royal City Of Abomey

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Africa » Benin » South » Abomey
November 25th 2009
Published: June 23rd 2017
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Geo: 7.18456, 1.9903

Today we finished off our last chaotic border crossing. I've got to think that running the gauntlets that are major West African border crossings gives one a preview of a Mad Max apocalypse in motion. People running in all directions, everyone shouting instructions and no one actually listening, overloaded vehicles just daring a customs official to undo the one rope holding all of the legal and illegal cargo in place, livestock desperately searching for grass and shade (at least those critters not tied securely to the top of a truck or hanging upside down from a piece of string), and stamp-happy immigration police writing our personal details into a large 1984ish ledger book that could not possibly be a meaningful future data source. I think there must be a lesser known prize among African countries to see which could take up the most passport space with visas, entry stamps, and exit stamps (my own vote would go to Togo which managed to consume a page and a half to match the day and a half that we were in the country) so I was busy trying to 'help' the Beninese Police squeeze stamps into areas that might leave enough space in my passport to allow me to get home. If they appreciated my help, it was not obvious in their expressions.

Once through we made our way to Ouidah which gave us a bizarre blend of the slave trade and voodoo. We worked our way along a 3.5km stretch of road known as the Route des Esclaves (the Slave Route) which was the final distance that began hundreds of kilometres inland. The first of six stages was the slave market (with the neighbouring home of a notorious Brazilian/Portuguese slave trader and womanizer now a restricted guesthouse for the descendents of slaves tracing their roots).

The second stage- which saw the integration of voodoo magic- was the Tree of Forgetfulness which would have been circled a number of times by the slaves and, through magic, they would forget their names, their families, and the life they no longer had. From there we visited the site of the Zomai (which roughly translated is ‘where light is not allowed'😉 which was a dark room for extended stays which was also intended to break the spirits of the shackled slaves before going onto the ships. If they made it this far, many did not survive
Tree Of ReturnTree Of ReturnTree Of Return

Planted over a dead slave to guarantee a place of return for the souls of slaves.
this room, and all of the dead slaves were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave which was the fourth stage on the route. Stage five was the Tree of Return which was planted over the head of a slave who was buried alive and upright, and the departing slaves would circle it three times to guarantee that at least their souls would find their way back to their homeland. The final stage was a large Gate Of No Return and even here a couple of voodoo ritual dancers wait to welcome back the souls of the dead slaves. Mind-numbing stuff.

From here we went to visit the Python Temple- in voodoo, the python represents the god Da who is the bringer of life and fertility, and it's the favourite god of the people of Ouidah. It's a fascinating place which is home to a number of significant ceremonies (one in particular is held every 7 years) but, somewhat predictably, the hosts expect that you will want to drape one of the resident pythons around your neck- I'm not sure what the snake thinks of all this but DH (who keeps me around, in large measure, to squish any small bugs that dare to venture into our home) seemed remarkably comfortable with a python wrapped around her neck. At that point we were told that the temple staff only give the snakes water and, at night, release them into the streets of Ouidah to feed on small critters- around the neck was fine but the thought of a town crawling with feeding pythons was enough to convince DH that it was time to get to the next snake-free town.

That town was Abomey and given our jam-packed final days, we once again rolled in well after dark like delinquent teenagers and to find a place to sleep, we ended up scouring a number of back alleys and found something of a gem in Chez Monique, which was a bit of a rare bargain in West Africa at $20 for two meals and a room- it was also something of an outdoor art gallery and we even saw, for no apparent reason, some sort of fire dance right next to where we were eating. The guesthouse receptionist/bellboy/waiter was also a guide and he offered to give us a deep insight into Abomey in 5 hours or less.

Like Timbuktu, though less celebrated, Abomey is one of the truly great old African towns and was home to a long line of powerful, if somewhat bloodthirsty (by reputation) Dahomey Kings. We were here to see the remains of the Royal Palace Complex but we wanted to start the day with one last visit to a traditional village outside of Abomey that was steeped in the traditions of voodoo. Here we met the most charming of all of the Spiritualists/Diviners we had encountered to date (DH thought he was cute but after our Diviner explained the one Fetish that could be dispatched to kill people in far away places, discretion suggested we not call him that to his face so DH just kept nodding and saying "bon appetite" to him). Our Spiritualist went about his business as usual and a number of people, prostrating themselves before him, came to ask for help of one sort or another. He would invite the spirits in by spraying water from his mouth all over the Fetishes (giving the spirits something to drink) and subsequent animal sacrifices would be done to give the spirits something to eat (all of which is shared with the living). We were humbled by the activity around
Marker For Tree Of ForgetfulnessMarker For Tree Of ForgetfulnessMarker For Tree Of Forgetfulness

Slaves circled the tree multiple times in order to magically forget their names, families, and the life they no longer had. The tree is no longer there.
us and the reverence shown this Diviner by the people of the village. He showed us, with an obvious pride, pictures of his father and grandfather who had preceded him as Spiritualists- I snuck a portrait picture of him and printed it off for him on my tiny Polaroid printer. He couldn't thank us enough for the picture- one of the truly wonderful encounters we have had on this trip.

From here we dropped in to see the local Fetish market which was a lite version of what we had seen in Lome but it was also a little more mixed in with the regular market (do all your shopping- get your tomatoes, peppers, and perhaps the skull of a giraffe??). Still can't get used to the smells.

From 1625 to 1900, 12 kings succeeded one another at the head of the powerful Kingdom of Abomey. As part of their inheritance they were obliged to both expand the empire, and to build their own palaces within the same cob-wall area, in keeping with previous palaces as regards the use of space and materials. The royal palaces of Abomey are a unique reminder of this vanished kingdom. The size and strength of the palaces reflects the fact that the Fon of Dahomey were powerful regionally and highly militaristic under an absolute monarchy which owned everything and everybody! Their wealth was accumulated through the sale of slaves in which the Kingdom acted both as capturers and middlemen for tribes further into the interior of Africa. What remains is a large complex of 2 palaces – those of the 19th century Kings Ghezo and Glélé who were the 9th and 10th kings of Dahomey (Another 10 palaces were destroyed during the French defeat of the monarchy in the 1890s). The complex consists of large interlinked courtyards each surrounded by rather ordinary single story mud-brick buildings and a few separated structures which were/are tombs and temples. For some unexplained reason, cameras were not allowed inside so after a somewhat traumatic bout of separation anxiety, I was left to wander the complex camera-less and, with DH, trying to imagine the buzz of royal life that would have been present at the height of influence and power for this Kingdom that is now fast-fading from our memories.

The Kingdom had a regiment of all-female warriors – the “Dahomey Amazons”, whose supposed “savagery” was the stuff of French legend as partial justification for their African expansion. In reality the Amazons were likely just Royal Guards but the Dahomey reputation for bloodthirsty conflict resulted in exaggerated stories emanating from this region. Some of that reputation was deserved as evidenced by the throne we saw that rested on 4 human skulls, a flyswatter that also incorporated a human skull, a temple beneath which 41 wives (41 is a sacred number) of King Glélé were buried alive after the king had died (apparently they volunteered?), and the Djeho Temple which was constructed using, in part, the blood of 41 slaves (there's that number again). The tomb of King Glélé still contains a bed and tradition requires that on market day, a singing princess still brings food and drink for the spirits, and cleans the interior while the spirits ‘dine'.

Now desperately short on time, we made the dash for Ganvié, the extraordinary aquatic stilt village that was on the way to our final destination of Cotonou. Ganvié has been called ‘the Venice of Africa' but other than the proximity of water, I thought the comparison was a pretty big stretch but the origins of the town were compelling nonetheless. To avoid being rounded up as slaves by the Kindom of Dahomey, the original inhabitants of Ganvié built their homes over water in the middle of the lake. Thanks to a religious ruling that restricted Dahomians from pursuing slaves over water, the village became a sanctuary of a sort and today the population numbers in the area of 30,000. The ramshackle homes supported by stilts that seemed to defy all reasonable rules of engineering and physics, may not have much in common with the majesty of Venice, but we were left wishing we had a bit more time to take in a more leisurely boat cruise through the various ‘canals'.

The proximity of the capital of Benin, Cotonou, has meant that Ganvié has become somewhat overrun with tourists (at least in West African terms- we didn't see any other tourists when we were there) and the water-logged citizens of Ganvié either don't share in the spoils of tourism, or they are not particularly appreciative of the benefits. Ghana included, Ganvié was the least hospitable stop in our West African sojourn (even the kids wouldn't return waves which is a clear violation of the Ron James perspective that all boaters feel they must wave to anyone else in a boat- we did our part) and we were met with a uniform scowl as we floated through town. I wasn't even taking pictures since, after paying for the tickets to visit Ganvié, we were told that it would be another $15 to take pictures- on principle alone I refused the extortionist offer. The village is still a must-see destination in Benin but I would hope that attitude adjustments take place in the near term.

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