I spent the other weekend exploring two towns in Benin – Ouidah and Ganvié.
Ouidah, a town which is full of history on slavery, was inhabited by the French, Portuguese, English and Dutch all whom were capitalising on the slavery trade. They each had a fort in Ouidah where they kept their slaves in terrible conditions. It is estimated around 3,500,000 slaves were deported from Ouidah to the New World and forced to leave their loved ones and country behind. Slavery was abolished in the 1860’s.
The slaves were sent to a market and sold. Those who did not cry when tortured sold for a higher price. Those who showed pain were often beheaded or sent back to the fort for another week before going back to the auction the following week.
Once sold they were chained around their necks and joined together to prevent escapees. They were marched 4km to the beach where they would meet the boats for departure to another country. Along the way they were taken to a tree and turned around the tree three times to ensure they forgot all their culture and sense of being. Because this did not actually occur (shock!), lots of Benin traditions for ways of building houses, cooking food and religion can be seen in Brazil where many of the slaves were sent. I found this really interesting.
The slaves were placed in a large room with no windows, food or water so they could ‘get used to conditions on the boats’. Those who died were buried in mass graves. Those who revolted were chained to the floor or beheaded.
Ouidah beach now has the ‘doors of departure’ on the beach, which symbolises the 3.5 million salves who were sent to another country. Never to return again.
Ouidah is also the centre of Voodoo religion in Benin, and arguably the world. Voodoo was founded in Benin and has an annual festival each year on January 10. It is not uncommon to see Voodoo festivals on the streets of Benin, particularly on Sundays. Many patients we treat believe their ailments are due to evil spirits.
From Ouidah we travelled to Ganvié which is known as the ‘Venice of Africa’. It is a community of 35,000 people who live in silt houses and live off the fishing industry. It is the largest lake village in Africa.
Ganvié came about when locals were trying to evade capture and being sold to the Portuguese for slavery. Religious beliefs meant anyone dwelling on water were forbidden to be captured. The name Ganvié comes from the local language Fon and means ‘we’ve survived’.
The Mummas need to find dry land to teach their babies how to walk as their houses are not connected together by platforms. Some of the children we saw paddling the boats were so young I think they learnt to paddle before walking!
They have large boats which are water taxis and transport most people to and from the village. Some paddle their own boat but it takes hours. There is a small maternity ward and pharmacy located in the village on a little island which often floods. When we visited there were five babies born one day earlier.
Both were very different towns but had one thing in common – the local children love having their photo taken!