Rattletrap, hot, stuffed bush taxis carried
The kings of
To learn about the slave trade, our first
stop was the
Shackled slaves were forced to walk this road to a field where they were branded with hot irons, then had to perform the "rite of forgetting" by walking around a tree – the men nine times and the women seven. (Do women have shorter memories?) The ceremony was designed to absolve the Kings of Dahomey from the spiritual consequences of their actions by making the slaves’ spirits forget what had been done to them. From here, they walked to the “Point of No Return” from which they were ferried to the deathly slave ships. A high proportion would die on the months-long ocean voyage, shackled together and stacked in layers in horrific conditions. The ocean beyond the memorial below was the "Point of No Return" for the slaves.
A PBS series described their misery: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1narr4.html
Relics of the ancient
In the room-size tomb of a major king is a bed for his spirit and that of his favorite wife. (When the king died, 41 of his 300 wives took poison and accompanied him.) For 200 years, someone has come each day to bring their spirits fresh food and water!
Abomey is the historic center of Voodoo
(Vodun), which is still practiced in
Joan climbed on the back of JC’s motorbike
and Lou on the back of his friend Sebastian’s, and away we jounced through
Abomey’s labyrinth of lanes - leaving squawking chickens and baaing goats
scattered in our wake. JC spun his colorful yarns at ten historical sites. The
first stop was
Although the various ruins left little to see, it didn’t matter because our wonderful guide was so animated. Several times he and Sebastian broke into a historical song-and-dance routine that held us spellbound. Between the scattered sites, we bounced through fields of high grass, down narrow passages and past the town’s ramshackle shops – every other one seemed to be a salon de coiffure et tresses. We stopped at the blacksmith’s shop to see a fetish shrine over which the blacksmiths pour palm oil and maize porridge every five days in an animist rite.
The local fetish market was the final stop, where we wandered through a maze of stalls selling desiccated bodies of birds, snakes, bats and rats, piles of feathers, teeth and feet, and the skulls of chimps and crocs.
JC disparages the black magic practitioners' use of these dead animals. He prefers, instead, to read his "fa" - a scattering of cowry shells or bones - to answer fateful questions. He explained the difference between Voodoo and fetishism, but it was too esoteric for us to understand. http://www.africanvodun.com/pages/essence.html
“Ouaga” is a good place to shop for West African artifacts. We bought souvenirs and small gifts at Nuances - a wonderful shop filled with well-designed jewelry and clothing, and wandered through Sortileges , which offers exceptional African artifacts at exceptionally high prices. We found a dealer, M. La Font, who has a large shop and courtyard filled with good quality masks and carvings, and purchased three masks (below from left: Fang, Songie and Baule tribes.) M. La Font also owns the excellent Gondwana restaurant.
At 2:30 a.m., Lou staggered back to our
hotel room in
(LOU): I was the only Westerner among
the 80 or so Africans on the smoke-belching bus headed into the Sahel - the
huge swath of semi-desert between the Sahara sands and the jungles of
I left our
The "road" was comprised almost entirely of detours - mostly through mud and water. Because of the recent rains, we forded countless rivers and crept through many shallow lakes. If the bus had any shocks or springs, I was sure they wouldn't last until Gorom. We stopped frequently for the driver's assistant to empty several bottles of oil into the engine. At one of these stops, the driver emptied his bladder into a sorghum field. Then someone passed a frightened little boy down my row, I passed him through my window and down to a man's waiting hands. The boy peed, and then - happily relieved - he was passed back through my window, down the row and into his mother's arms. Good idea, I thought, and got out to pee. A woman joined me - squatting nonchalantly by my side.
We stopped at over a dozen villages along the way, where the bus was swarmed by vendors - heads laden with trays of peanuts, cooked sweet potatoes, smoke-dried fish and some foods I couldn't identify. Behind the row of food tables there would be an open area with colorful mats on which the more faithful Muslim passengers sank to their knees and reverently touched their heads to the ground in prayer.
As day turned to night, the 13-year-old
girl next to me drifted into dreamland. Actually, her hot body drifted over and
squashed me against the window, but I hadn't the heart to wake her. At
the single night stop, I climbed over her and her sleeping mother and went
outside to watch a comical scene unfold. A disembarking passenger had to
paw his way through all six bays of the bus to find his luggage and then had to
remove 11 mattresses, three bicycles and four motorbikes from the roof to get
to his mattress at the bottom. That stop took 30 minutes. It was midnight
when we finally lumbered into the dumpy town of
At this point, an enterprising young man named Samuel (below) came to the bus window and offered his services. He’d find me a hotel room and be my guide at the market the next day.
Samuel took me to an overpriced $9 room, where - exhausted and sweating like a pig under a stifling mosquito net - I asked myself: Am I crazy? What am I doing here? Is life worth it? It had been 15 grueling hours of hot, humid, cramped, jarring madness without food other than an ear of roasted corn, a baked sweet potato and three slices of watermelon. Now here I was in a hell-hole of a room with spiders dangling from the ceiling.
Resisting these depressing thoughts, I
realized that I had came to experience
After four hours of sleep, I returned to the bus just before 5 a.m. By now, there were five soggy-buses parked above the water level and well over a hundred people stranded around them. Most were sleeping on hillocks of high ground, and some had stretched out on tables and benches of the roadside vendors. A few were swaddled in mosquito nets, but the majority had no protection against malaria - and probably suffered recurring attacks throughout their lives. Their plight made me ashamed of myself for grumbling over a grubby hotel room and muggy mosquito net.
By six, the "five o'clock
bus" was again on the road and Samuel was by my side. Like a fly
stuck to flypaper, he'd been waiting outside my room at 5
a.m., so I hired him to be my guide and paid his way to Gorom-Gorom. The
morning was clear and blue, the fields were submerged and men up to their
waists in water were gathering in nets of small fish. Samuel said that in
a couple of months these fields would be bone-dry as this part of the
21 hours after I started this odyssey, the bus rumbled into Gorom-Gorom. After a journey like that, you'd think the market would be anticlimactic. Not so. From the snake charmer medicine man to the livestock market, it was the most colorful and exotic I've ever seen. The vivid fabrics worn by the Bela women were enough to warrant the trip.
Traditionally-garbed people come to this market from a wide section of the northern region - some riding camels.
Samuel taught me to distinguish the various
tribes, sometimes by their skin color. The elegant man on the camel is Tuareg -
a tribe from the
The Tuareg and their former slaves, the Bela, wear the symbolic croix d'Agadez - a talisman that protects against the evil eye – in silver pendants and in embroidery on their cotton robes (below, left). Fulani men wear flowing robes and conical straw-and-leather hats that make them look vaguely Chinese.
Ousa women have scars on their front cheeks and temples, while the Songai are scarred on the sides of their cheeks and the corners of their mouths. The varied faces and colorful tribal garb swirled past in an ever-changing kaleidoscope.
What brilliant, beautiful clothing! Quite a
contrast with my own apparel. I returned to
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
ABOMEY: Ask for JC at Hotel La Lutta. A three-hour motorbike tour of Voodoo shrines cost a grand total of $10 for both of us – including a 40% tip!
Nuances – Jewelry, textiles, clothing: 31-72-74 Sortileges – Tribal artifacts, jewelry, masks: 31 60 80 M. La Font - Masks, textiles, carvings: 33-43-40
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com