Getting my bearings in Benin.
January 27th, 2012
At the beginning of January I set out to Benin in West Africa to shoot a feature on the spiritual birthplace of Voodoo, one of the countries fastest growing official religions. The trip was a bit of a punt, but with the backing of my picture desk at Getty Images we thought we would give it a go, and hopefully I would come back with a colourful set of interesting pictures that would make a nice standalone feature.
Sitting in the gulf of Guinea, the nation of Benin is tiny by African standards. Hemmed in by the might of Nigeria on its Eastern flank and Togo on its West, this former French colony with a population of around 8.5 million people is one of Africa’s most stable countries with a functioning democratic government and a relatively strong economy owing largely to the huge port in Cotonou.
Like many African Nations Benin shares a complicated history of political upheavals, military coup’s and remembers a dark colonial past. Ouidah on the countries South West coast was the departure point for slaves heading into the ‘New World’ during the 18th and 19th centuries. Ouidah is also the birthplace and spiritual heartland of Voodoo.
My entry point was the coastal city of Cotonou, the de-facto capital and commercial heart, with Porto Novo further to the North being the actual capital. The first thing that hit me was the traffic. It was complete chaos with motorcycles zigzagging through the streets like swarms of bees crisscrossing each other in death defying moves. Consequently the pollution in the city combined with the heat was quite overwhelming at first. Geographically Benin was a fairly uninteresting city of flat never-ending streets crossing streets crossing other streets. A myriad of ‘stuff’ lined the roads, from dried fish, fruit and vegetables, intricate fabrics, shoes, handbags, chickens, goats, spices pots and pans.
When arriving anywhere new, I always like to spend a day or two familiarising myself with the lay of the land before hurtling myself into anything too heavy. So, with a feather in my cap I headed out and decided to head to Ganvie. Often called the Venice of Africa, Ganvie is a stilted fishing village on Lake Nokoue, a huge lagoon North of the city. It is the largest such village in Africa, and home to approximately 20,000 residents. Despite the guidebooks touting it as a bit of a disappointing tourist draw, Ganvie was fascinating, which goes to show that you should always take what the guidebooks say with a pinch of salt. Ironically I didn’t see any tourists at all which was a pleasant surprise.
I have included a slide show with a selection of the pictures from Ganvie below. By no means comprehensive, they capture a slice of life from one afternoon whizzing round in a boat. For a real sense of how big this place was I would have needed a helicopter but I don’t think the budget would have stretched on this occasion sadly. Maybe next time.
Moving on from Ganvie and Cotonou I headed to Ouidah, Benin’s Voodoo heartland which was an eye opener to say the least. I am still putting that together as a separate blog so watch this space for the next installment…..