Benin. And the reason for the threatening stare.

At the end of the beach road, we reach Ouidah, the place that I have been waiting to visit for a long time. It is where the practice of Voodoo began and where the “Gate of No return” is located.

The Gate of No Return is the place from where the slaves were shipped, and now a UNESCO monument marks the spot. The stories are horrendous. They were sold in an open market, then assembled for shipping and finally branded on their shoulder with a red hot iron to denote which country had bought them. Basically it was a shipping label.

Then they were shackled together with heavy chains. The shackles held them extremely close to each other, affording them no room for movement other than synchronized walking in a forward direction. They had huge wooden sticks or iron bars placed in their open mouths which were then tied tightly behind their head, like a horse’s bit.

The slaves knew they were never going to return to their country and so the name “Gate of No Return” was born. There is a separate monument built for the spirits of the dead slaves welcoming them back to their country. The monuments are not particularly moving but the stories bring me to tears.

My guide asks me if I would like a photo of myself standing in the Gate of No Return. I say I couldn’t possibly stand there for a photo. To reduce it all to a place for a holiday snap seems to me to be demeaning to my hosts, to their families and to their ancestors. Apparently I am the first American to say that, as several people gather round me to say thank you and shake my hand. It is the first time that I feel welcome.

We then drive a little inland to see where the slaves were assembled and sold. The retail store, so to speak. Next to it is the site of a huge home that belonged to the African man who made all the chains to shackle the slaves. He became immensely wealthy. It is a sad story, made even sadder when we stop at the burial site for all the Africans who died from the atrocious treatment before they could be shipped. They were all buried in a huge pit with no marker, but today there is another UNESCO monument.

I am beginning to understand the reason for the hostile stares.

From here, we investigate the beginnings of Voodoo, and visit the sacred forest. This is where the first Voodoo Prince died and it is believed his spirit inhabits one of the oldest trees. I was looking forward to this as well, but it all seems a little hokey after the tragic story of the slaves. The small forest used to be off limits to everyone except those who had been inducted into Voodoo. But then a trickle of tourists started arriving in Benin and a fence and ticket booth went up. Inside local artists have produced sculptures of the various Voodoo gods, most of which look as if they would be more at home in the local fairground. There is only one that catches my attention, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, so to speak.A little later we stop for cold drinks at a small local cafe. The owner emerges from the back. She is an extremely shapely woman poured into a very tight dress that is too low on the bosom and too high on the leg. She stops and looks me up and down. She calls to her colleagues in the back. Two more women come out but are a little more reserved. They peer round the door at me. There is a lengthy discussion filled with ribald laughs and girlish giggles. Venance, my guide, asks me if I know what they are saying. As they are speaking in a tribal dialect it would seem fairly obvious that I don’t, but I think I am getting the gist.

The guides laugh, and then Venance says

“She wants to have sex with you”

I am speechless.

“What, now?” is all I can think of to say.

“Yes, RIGHT now” Venance announces, having a hard job controlling himself.

“But all I want is a bottle of cold water” I say

“If you have sex with her you will need more than one bottle”, he replies, unable to to keep the laughter in any longer.

I smile at the young lady and politely say that I do not have time for sex, although I suspect it might all be over quite quickly. I have a feeling she would eat me up and spit me out in a very short time.

“What about a photograph of you, so that I can remember you” I say in my best diplomatic way.

She readily agrees and as we pose, she wraps her arm around me while her hand explores various parts of my body that I had not intended to share with her

I tell the guide to hurry up and take the photo.

Venance is laughing so hard he can’t find the button on the cameraThis is the second time that I have been made to feel welcome, but in an entirely different way.

From here, we drive for an hour and a half to Ganvie, a village of bamboo huts built on stilts in the middle of a lake. The roads now are paved down the middle with wide sandy verges each side which are littered with shells of broken down vehicles. As soon as a vehicle is left by the owner, the locals strip it bare of all its parts and set up an impromptu “Parts Shop” at the side of the roadThe streets are lined with desperate little stalls run by desperate little people selling desperately little merchandiseAir quality control is a problem.Ganvie is a huge floating village, some say it has 30,000 inhabitants, others 15,000. But either way it means a lot of people are crammed into each living space. The lake and its “roads” are full of small boats that the inhabitants use to go about their business,which is of course, fishing.Dear readers, many of you have so little to do that you have been reading my blogs for years. Of those, a few might have been paying enough attention to remember the incredible floating villages of Burma, where we were invited in to a home, met the family and were treated to tea and snacks. This is nothing like that.

Despite Benin trying to promote Ganvie as the Venice of Africa, it has very little charm, and the inhabitants even less. The houses are run down and uncared for and often littered with discarded furnitureThe people glare their hostile stares and shout if I try and take their photo. The “roads” are a disgusting dark brown colourSadly, I am quite happy that we cannot stay long as it is time to get back to the ship.

You will remember all my fellow travelers telling me I was crazy to go out on my own. Well, as I arrive back the ship’s tour buses are disgorging their passengers. They are all exhausted and bathed in sweat. The temperature has been in the high nineties, as has the humidity. They have been extremely uncomfortable in their buses, which may have come with a police escort, but did not come with air conditioning. I have been very comfortable in my beat up but beautifully air conditioned Mercedes.

I try to outwardly show compassion for their discomfort, but I find it hard when I am inwardly gloating.

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10 Responses to Benin. And the reason for the threatening stare.

  1. Robert says:

    Very enlightening Andrew, about a part of the world I know nothing about. I too thought of Burma when seeing the village on stilts. Please give my best to Gordon. Hugs Robert!

  2. Baz says:

    I don’t want to cause a domestic here, but if ever i saw a couple made for one another…! The least you could have done is steer her in the direction of the voodoo god.

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