From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



I always think it is better to travel with a companion than alone, but this morning my son, Andrew, actually proved to have some practical utility.  I had tried to have a hot shower, but whenever I turned the mixer tap from the right (cold water) towards the left (hot), the water simply stopped running.  My advice to Andrew as he went into the bathroom was that I expected him to be disappointed with the shower.

I was surprised when we seemed to be enjoying a long shower, and he when he emerged he wondered why he would have been disappointed.  Our hotel, the Hotel du Lac, apparently only turns on the hot water at 7:30 am each morning.  Thank you Andrew for encouraging me to try it again.

We had a lovely breakfast, which in Andrew’s case, even included a Nespresso coffee.  We were on the road by 8:45 am for the short 40 kilometre drive to Ouidah, west of Cotonou, and we reached our destination at about 10:00 am in spite of the road works for most of the distance.

Ouidah is a very significant town in the history of West Africa.  In addition to being the place where voodoo began, it was one of the main points for the export of slaves to the Americas.  Many of the town’s residents are descendants of former slaves who returned to Africa, mainly from Brazil, and therefore many people have Portuguese surnames taken from their former slave owners. Thus, it was not surprising that voodoo and slavery were the two themes for today’s visits.

Our first stop (if you ignore stops to ask directions) was at the Museum of History.  Located in the former Portuguese fort that was built in 1721, the visit was enjoyable both for the background to Africa’s slavery that it provided and the beautiful buildings and architecture that the Portuguese constructed.  The Portuguese fort is the last remaining fort built by the Europeans in Ouidah, the others having been built by the French, the British, the Dutch and the Danes.

In its day, Ouidah was a rival kingdom to Abomey, and we learnt that most of the slave trade with the Europeans was conducted by the local kings, who sold slaves in return for armaments they could use to expand their territory, capturing and enslaving people from the conquered lands as they did so.  It was clear that the Europeans and the local leaders were equally complicit in the slave trade.

Our second stop was the Temple of Pythons, a very old and still functioning voodoo temple.  It is set directly across an open square facing the Catholic Basilica, which is reportedly the oldest Catholic Cathedral in West Africa, having been built in 1906.  We were told that the juxtaposition of the Temple of Pythons and the Catholic Cathedral shows that the two religions can live in harmony with each other.  Visually, I thought it looked more like a confrontational battle for the hearts, minds and souls of the population, but I’ll defer to the local explanation.

Our visit to the Temple of Pythons became a little surreal when the director of a French film crew asked if his team could record our visit for a documentary film they were making.  I agreed, provided they did not get in our way, but I was a bit startled by the size of the entourage.  Nonetheless, the film they are making, which will examine, slavery, discrimination, voodoo and persecution sounded very worthwhile, and I was happy to grant them a short interview at the end of the visit.

The Temple of Pythons houses about 40 pythons, and it is the spirit of the pythons that is venerated – to the point that when one dies, it is buried in a special cemetery set aside for the purpose.  The pythons are only provided with water, and they are set free to roam the neighbourhood each evening to catch their food.  The local population knows they are harmless, and indeed divine, so naturally they do not harm them.  Andrew and I were invited to pose for pictures with a python around our necks – it didn’t seem a particularly sacred thing to do with a divine python, but it was good fun nonetheless.

Our next visit was to what is referred to as the “Route of the Slaves”.  This was the harrowing four kilometre route from the old open-air slave market to the beach where the slaves were loaded onto ships for export.

Place Chacha, as the slave market area is now known, was a large triangular area with a huge shady tree in the middle.  Obviously a place of huge significance, the truck of the tree is now wrapped in the flags of the African nations from which slaves were sent, together with the flags of the trading nations and the destination countries.  At the rear of the square, there is a high wall with various evocative murals painted on the theme of slavery.

The four kilometre route that the slaves followed from the square is now the dirt road from Ouidah town to the sea.  With heavy chains around their necks and legs, the slaves were only moved at night time so they would be disoriented and unable to tell where they were.  Along the way, there was the Tree of Forgetfulness which slaves had to circle several times to forget their homeland, their families and their history; as believers in voodoo, they accepted that circling the tree would actually make them forget.

In 1992, following the overthrow of the Marxist Government in Benin, several kitsch statues were erected along the Route of the Slaves, supposedly in an effort to reinvigorate Benin’s traditional culture.  More helpful, in my view, was a series of bas reliefs depicting the slave trade, and on the beach, the cemetery where slaves who died on the walk were reburied from their old mass graves, and the Tree of Returned Spirits, which served as an antidote to the Tree of Forgetfulness; it marked the spot where it was believed the spirits of slaves who died in the Americas would return, and was marked by a figure of a person with a tree instead of a head and multiple seeing eyes in different parts of the body.

Finally, at the beach, the UNESCO-funded “Gate of No Return” marked the point at which slaves knew they would never return or escape (unless, as many did, they threw themselves overboard to drown from the small pirogues that took them from the wave-sediment interface to the large ship anchored offshore.

Interestingly, near the shoreline, an artist had erected an impressive monument to slavery.  Erected a little over a week ago and due to be dismantled tomorrow, the display featured slaves made from waste materials as a symbol that the slaves were themselves commodities that were seen as waste by their owners.  It was extremely well done, and we spent quite some exploring the art and talking with the artist.

Our final scheduled visit was to the Sacred Forest of Kpasse.  Kpasse was a 14th century king of Ouidah, and this beautifully cool forest area had been used for a long time for dances and ceremonies.  According to tradition, Kpasse never died, but in order to escape his enemies, he turned himself into a tree in order to hide from his enemies.  It seems to have worked, and we saw the tree today, a large iroko tree with a few small shrines at its base where sacrifices are still made (as was obvious by the state of the small shrines).  There was another huge tree that fell over during a storm, and when a team of workers came to remove it, they became drowsy and fell asleep, and when they woke up, they found that the tree had miraculously lifted itself and replanted itself; it is still growing healthily today.  In recent years, several kitsch statues have been erected to depict various voodoo divinities and historical figures, which added some interest though not necessarily aesthetic beauty to our visit.

By this time it was early afternoon, and we headed to our nominated hotel, the DK Hotel.  Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that they only have rooms with double beds rather than the twin beds we required.  We then tried another new hotel in town, and found the same problem.  A further visit to another centrally located hotel revealed a room with a double bed and a child’s double bunk bed, but woefully inadequate standards of cleanliness.  We were more lucky on our fourth try, where we found a suitable room at the Benin Diaspora Auberge, situated near the beach a short distance from the Gate of No Return.  Although the room was very basic, with just two beds, two hard chairs, and a tiny desk holding a 17” television in it, the bathroom was clean and spacious (no shampoo, but a huge cake of provided), and it had slow but fairly steady internet.  Furthermore, it had a pool and an open air restaurant next to the beach, with a huge range of relatively inexpensive high quality food to choose from (and some of it was even available).  So Andrew and I made the most of it by enjoying a late lunch in the restaurant, with an exquisite refreshing sea breeze cooling us down on this quite hot day.

Being the world capital of voodoo – there is voodoo pope here in Ouidah – we were offered the opportunity to see another voodoo dance in the late afternoon.  To be performed under the Tree of Returned Spirits, the dance was part of the follow on from the annual Voodoo Day (which is celebrated each year as a public holiday in Benin) on 10th January. 

At 5:00 pm, we headed off, via a quick stop at the Catholic Basilica, arriving at the Tree of Returned Spirits at about 5:30 pm.  The dancing had already started.  It was quite different to the intense spectacle we had seen in Abomey.  Today’s dancing was mainly by women, and was slow and rhythmic.  The sacrifices (a goat and a chicken) had been done that morning, and most of the dancing involved circling the Tree of Returned Spirits, with two of three of the women periodically breaking away from the others to come across to relate to the musicians.  The only real excitement came when one of the old ladies seemed to go a little crazy, going wide-eyed and flipping her tongue like a snake before coming up to me and pressing her groin into my crotch to the delight of the onlookers.  I captured her dance on my phone video, although the moment of her ‘impact’ is a bit blurry.  I must say - it is something that never happened to me during all the years I was a school principal!

Overall, today’s voodoo dance was seen in better light than the one a couple of days ago, and its religious element was much less intense or dark.  On the other hand, it lacked the visual spectacle of the dance in Abomey; in fact, it was extraordinarily slow and repetitive.  We were told that we were just a bit unlucky as most of the men weren’t dancing today – apparently they really liven things up.  If that is true, I am glad that none of the men tried to dance with me in the style of the old lady this afternoon.


19 January 2014

Day 23 - Cotonou to Ouidah, Benin