From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



It was quite a shock to the system to wake this morning and find the air had a humidity of 77%.  Our bodies had adjusted quite well to the prevailing 7% to 15% humidity of the Sahel, and the hot, moist air of morning Parakou was certainly a mild shock.  Having grey cloud cover was also quite a change from the blue skies of the Sahel – clearly, yesterday’s long drive had brought us into a different climatic region.

Our 300 kilometre drive today to Benin’s old capital city of Abomey was scheduled to take all morning, and it did – from 8:30 am to 1:30 pm.  We made just one brief stop on the way so Mama and Harouna could buy some tapioca after enjoying a close study of some of the roadside trees.   Travelling on roads of very good to excellent quality was quite a novelty for us after the Sahel, and the drive was both scenic and varied.  Harouna had worked last night to get the air conditioning in the car working, which was certainly appreciated in the warm, humid weather of central Benin.

The highway passed through lots of small towns at fairly frequent intervals, many with a clear Christian influence in contrast to the Muslim dominance in the Sahel.  Towns in different areas seemed to specialise in different products judging by the small stalls beside the roads – yams, charcoal, tapioca, cassava and gari (which is a product of corn) seemed to be the main specialties.  From time to time, we had to swerve to avoid hitting children who would run onto the road holding up a dead bird, a rodent or a rabbit that they had caught and wanted to sell to a passer by for food.

Especially interesting were some of the vehicles on the road.  Many of the vehicles were heavy trucks transporting goods upcountry and internationally from Benin’s large port at Cotonou, but interspersed between them were many impossibly overloaded cars and small vans that looked as though they were escapees from a wrecking yard.  And then there ‘the convoy’ – over a thousand second hand cars from Europe, being driven north from Cotonou for sale in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.  Known locally as “France au revoirs”, they were being driven fast and aggressively in a seemingly never ending line.  Most were covered in a thick layer of red dust, many were missing radiator grills, lights and badges, and many had bashed mudguards (fenders).  Many others had their lights, badges, grills, etc taped up, presumably so they could not be unscrewed and stolen during overnight stops.

When we arrived in Abomey, we followed the now established practice of hailing a motor bike (which is the standard form of taxi in Benin) and following him to our destination.  Using this system, we quickly located our hotel, the Motel d’Abomey.  This proved to be a more basic hotel than many we have used, providing soap, towels (upon request) and very effective if somewhat noisy air conditioning, but no towel rails or hooks, no hot water taps (and therefore presumably no hot water either), no lid or seat for the toilet, and of deep concern to Andrew and me, no internet access.  The hotel an authentically pseudo-African atmosphere (if that makes sense) as the rooms comprised round concrete huts with straw roofs, set in grounds that actually look like an area of destructive deforestation.

Andrew and I were the only people in the restaurant for lunch, although that didn’t stop a textile artisan coming in to show us his wares, and a small girl carrying fruit on her head as a kind of juvenile entrepreneurial alternative to the hotel’s menu. 

While we were having lunch, there was a heavy downpour of rain – the first we have seen on this trip so far – and the rain continued gently for most of the rest of the afternoon.  It was great to experience that distinctive aroma when rain settles the dust in the atmosphere, and the temperature remained considerably cooler after the initial fall of rain.

We met Mama at 3:00 pm to do some exploring of Abomey.  Our first stop, which was a relatively brief , was to visit a large statue of King Béhanzin, the great Dahomey ruler who fought off the French.  Interestingly, the statue was constructed by the North Koreans in 1979, although not in the full socialist realist style that is used in Pyongyang.

While at the statue, Mama found a motor cyclist to lead us to our main destination, the Museum of the Royal Palace.  He took us to a couple of wrong spots before we reached our destination, which was great for seeing suburban Abomey, but it delayed our arrival by (let’s be charitable) the best part of an hour.

Before describing the Museum, it is probably necessary to give a little concise background to Benin’s history.  When I was a boy collecting stamps, I had quite a few with exotic pictures from this strange place called Dahomey, which is the former name for Benin.  The name Dahomey came from an old kingdom that was quite powerful in the area of present-day Benin, lasting from about 1600 to 1894 when it was conquered by the French.

The Dahomey kings largely built their wealth upon slavery, both slaves used within the kingdom and the slave trade – selling slaves to other kingdoms, including of course the Europeans.  In return for the slaves sold, the Europeans supplied the Dahomey kings with guns, which were used to expand the kingdom within West Africa quite aggressively.  For over a hundred years, an average of 10,000 slaves were shipped to the Americas (mainly Brazil and Haiti), which is how voodoo travelled to the Americas.  Whereas Ghana was known as the Gold Coast, and Côte d’Ivoire is still known as the Ivory Coast, Dahomey was known as the Slave Coast.

The museum that we visited this afternoon was based on two palaces – each of the Dahomey kings built their own palace.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, photos were not permitted inside, which is a great pity because I would have loved to have shared the gruesome beauty of the complex.  For example, King Ghézo’s throne was mounted on four skulls of his enemies.  One of the temples was lined with cattle skulls, placed there after the 1858 amendment to the law that abolished human sacrifices.  We also saw an impressive line of Portuguese cannons, each of which cost either 15 young healthy men or 21 young beautiful girls.  We also saw the burial ground where the king’s wives were buried alive following the king’s death, although compassion dictated that they were drugged and unconscious before they were buried.  There was another nice compassionate touch, I thought – we learned that the public executioner had to sever the head of the prisoner with a single blow so the dying person would not suffer.  Moreover, if the executioner failed to perform his duty with a single blow, then the executioner would himself be executed.

Our minds reeling from the gruesome history of the Dahomey kings, we returned to our hotel at 5:30 pm.  We had a short rest before heading out again at 7:00 pm to see something distinctively Beninese, some voodoo dancing.

We heard that a local neighbourhood was having a ceremony this evening, and we were invited the dancing component (but not the secret fetish ceremony afterwards that involved animal sacrifices).  Voodoo began in Benin, and the dancing is famous for its hypnotic, energetic exuberance.  Therefore, this seemed like an excellent opportunity to experience the dancing at first hand.

Harouna kindly drove Andrew, Mama and I along the dark, unlit streets to the small neighbourhood where the dancing was to take place.  The musicians (almost all of whom were drummers) were already playing when we arrived at about 7:10 pm, and we took our places on some plastic chairs that were provided.  The local community gathered slowly – first the adults, then the children, and finally the elderly - and at about 8:15 pm the action finally began.  This was no tourist special - it was part of a voodoo ceremony that would have been happening whether we were present or not.

Unfortunately, everything was very difficult to photograph because it was so dark; there was just a single low energy bulb illuminating the “circle” as the dusty rectangular ceremonial area was known.  As the dancers arrived (mostly men dressed as women), the door to the fetish house (where the idols are stored) was solemnly opened, some fetishes were brought out, and the dancers began.

The dancing was as fast, as energetic and as exuberant as I had expected – so fast that it was often difficult to see the dancers’ feet.  Some of the dancers seemed to take off and go into a low orbit at times, and it was fascinating to watch – and becoming more and more difficult to photograph as the rising dust made auto focussing impossible, and the extremely low light precluded manual focussing.

After almost an hour, the purpose of the dancing became apparent as two tiny girls dressed in white entered the circle with their mothers, the younger girl carrying by its feet the chicken that would later be sacrificed.  Some ceremonial words were said, and the little girls began their voodoo style dance.  As they did so, the audience seemed to go into a rapture of excitement and joy, with women screaming out loud, waving their hands in the air, as old men came and kissed the ground where the girls were dancing.  At one level it was quite cute, while at another level it was highly disturbing.

We left at about 9:30 pm as the dancing had stopped and the serious business of blood sacrifices was due to begin.  It meant a very late dinner for us, but having experienced the voodoo dancing, Andrew and I had plenty to ponder and discuss over the meal.


17 January 2014

Day 21 - Parakou to Abomey, Benin