“Beware and take heed of the Bight of Benin. Where few come out but many go in”.
The distant sound of drums beating late at night was as close as I got to witnessing a voodoo ceremony in Benin. Somewhere in the small coastal town of Quidah people were communicating with the dead. At least that is what I assumed they were doing. What else goes on at voodoo ceremonies?
I lay in my tent thinking of Sean Connery in the film Live and Let Die; bodies raising themselves out of graves and large snakes coiled around human skulls. My knowledge of the religion, like many others, has of course been distorted by Hollywood films.
Benin is the birthplace of voodoo, where it’s designated a national religion. Had slaves not exported it to the Americas and the film industry picked up on the scent it may never have gained the cult recognition it now has. Who for one matter knows anything about Benin?
This small club-shaped country lying to the west of Nigeria used to be called Dahomey. Before the French began meddling in its affairs it was also home to one of the most powerful empires in Africa. Abomey, it’s capital, was where Dahomeyan kings built palaces and seemed to flourish in the acts of slave-trading, human sacrifice and war. That was of course a long time ago. Abomey, some 130km inland from the coast, is now a dusty and dirty place over-run with motorbikes.
This somewhat bland description could be said about a lot of towns in Benin, and also Togo for that matter. I only stayed two nights in Benin’s other Francophone neighbour. There were too many motorbikes there too. Most of them are used as taxi’s and referred to as ‘zemi-johns’. Roads up and down both countries are lined with makeshift stalls selling petrol in re-used bottles of Pastis, Coca Cola and large demijohns. It’s not uncommon to see three, four or even five or six (mothers with babies or infants strapped on their backs) people on one of these Chinese imported pieces of scrap. They make walking around towns highly unappealing. Other than having to remain constantly vigilant that you’re not run over, there are the fumes and the high-pitched whine of the 125cc engines to contend with. Most annoying though is that every motorbike driver looking for a passenger will hiss at you as a means to attract your attention. For these reasons I took a quiet dirt-track to cross Togo and enter Benin, passing through green coffee and cocoa growing hills.
The central Palace in Abomey, one of the country’s star attractions, was disappointing for three reasons. Firstly photography was prohibited, secondly the guide only spoke French, and thirdly the buildings and exhibits were uninspiring for a city that claims to have been home to one of the greatest empires on the continent and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What does distinguish Togo and Benin, positively speaking, is how very colourfully dressed the people are, both men and women. Every village seems to have at least one tailor and seamstress, who sit over age-old singer sowing machines and transform 2-4metre length pieces of bright patterned wax cloth into beautiful items of clothing. At some point when I stop for a few days I shall go out to the market, choose my material and have a few new shirts tailor-made for me.
One of the thirty dislikes I listed in the previous post was taking detours to places that really aren’t worth it. Ouidah was possibly one of those. It lies south of Abomey on what I soon discovered is one of the main trunk roads in west Africa. To the north of Benin lie the landlocked countries of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, and it would appear the road north from Cotonou, Benin’s capital next to Ouidah, is a major transport route for fuel and other commodities. Foreign faces who travel it will also suffer that terrible Francophone affliction of receiving constant demands for cadeau and l’argent from children and adults living at the roadside.
When I arrived in Ouidah the only budget hotel was closed, which is why I decided to persuade the hotel’s caretaker to allow me to pitch my tent on the floor of the restaurant (having a free-standing tent is crucial in Africa).
Other than the voodoo connection I was finding hard to unearth, Ouidah is famous for it’s slave trading history. Here, like other sites along the west African coast, thousands of slaves were deported in atrocious conditions to the Americas. A monument stands on the beach to represent the ‘door of no return’, reached after a 4km walk lined with tacky fetish monuments that look like they’ve been stolen from an abandoned theme-park.
More poignantly for me, Ouidah is my last stopping point on the Atlantic coast for a very long time. My journey will now take me east into Nigeria and the mountains of Cameroon. I’m still hoping to team back up with Hiromu, whose last e-mail was to say that he’d recovered from Malaria, but had gone and left his wallet containing credit card and $300 in cash in a roadside cafe and now needed to stop for several days in Cotonou to organise a replacement.
To bring you into the present, it is 8.15am on October 28th and I’m writing this from a dimly-lit guesthouse room in a town called Zangnanadon, although this may not get posted on the Internet for a few days. My room costs 3000cfa (£4) per night (much better value than the rooms advertised at 1000cfa for an hour) and I’m delaying my departure whilst waiting for my clothes to dry that I hand-washed yesterday evening. It won’t take long. It’s probably about 28-30 degrees Centigrade right now, and if like yesterday it will reach 35-36C in the shade come midday. During the last few days I sped through both Cotonou and Porto Novo, Benin’s second city, and headed north away from the busy coastal traffic and cadeau calling. The Nigerian border near the town of Ketou is about 50km to the east of here. All going well I will cross the border today.