Other photos of Benin & Burkina Faso





                                                       TOGO: LomeBENIN: Ouidah, Cotonou, Porto-Novo, Abomey 


 BENIN  September 2005



Rattletrap, hot, stuffed bush taxis carried us from Ghana across Togo to Benin, where we visited Ouidah, the famous port from which millions of slaves left Africa - bound (literally) for the Americas. It’s often assumed that Western slavers simply went ashore and grabbed as many Africans as they could. The truth is even more appalling.

The kings of Dahomey aggressively captured people in neighboring areas and sold some 3.6 million into slavery in return for guns and European luxuries. The European slavers hauled most of those captured in this area off to Brazil and Haiti. (Many of those headed for the plantations of the English Colonies in North America were purchased from the Ashanti kings of what is now Ghana.) Nearly 12 million slaves were taken from Africa over a period of three centuries.  Yes, the European slavers were brutally mercenary, but “The slave trade could not have endured… without the cooperation of a huge network of African rulers and merchants," says Dr. Robert Harms, Professor of African History at Yale.


To learn about the slave trade, our first stop was the Historical Museum in Ouidah, housed in an old French fort. The museum guide showed us through the remnants of the cruel history of slavery. After the museum closed, we hired the guide and his friend to take us on motorbikes down the 2.5 mile Route des Esclaves to the beach. The road is lined with sculptures, murals, bas reliefs and other reminders of man’s inhumanity to man.



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 Kingdom of Dahomey rest in the Musee Historique d’Abomey. On its mossy terracotta walls are the bas relief symbols of the kings. Inside are relics of a violent history - for example, a throne resting on the skulls of four vanquished opponents and bas reliefs depicting enemies with dismembered heads and limbs.




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 West Africa by some 30 million people. Lonely Planet’s guidebook West Africa mentions a man in Abomey who leads tours of Voodoo sites, so we caught a zemidjan (motorbike taxi) to his decaying Hotel La Lutta. Its dusty lobby contained grimy mannequins, mildewed appliquéd wall hangings, stacks of spiked receipts yellowed with age, an ancient radio and a few tables and chairs. The jovial hotel owner - Adjolohoun Jean-Constant (JC) - warmly welcomed us, put on his appliqué cap and took us on a hoot of a tour through Abomey’s mythology, history and religion.




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 Temple Zewa, a Voodoo temple where two women were covered in oil and left to be eaten by red ants; Zewa was the last to die. Wonder what they did to warrant such treatment?

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




                                                                        Ouagadougou; and (Lou only) Gorom-Gorom


     BURKINA FASO  September 2005


From Benin, we returned to GHANA - the only African county of the 13 we visited that disappointed us. Many years ago, Lou was in graduate school at UCLA with a Ghanaian whom we greatly enjoyed, and we were expecting to find lots of people like Sibi - especially since Ghana has a reputation for friendliness. For some reason, most Ghanaians we met were unsociable and unhelpful - so, after three days in Accra and three more in Kumasi, we headed north to Burkina Faso.



“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. 





Ouagadougou was also a good place for Joan to collapse in the air-conditioned comfort of our hotel. Suffering from heat exhaustion (see BUMBLING AROUND AFRICA), she opted to rest while Lou took an arduous bus trip.



At 2:30 a.m., Lou staggered back to our hotel room in Ouagadougou - filthy dirty and bone-tired after a two-day bus trip to Gorom-Gorom's exotic Thursday market.

(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 Africa's belly. My destination was Gorom-Gorom, located in the northeastern corner of Burkina Faso at the borders of Niger and Mali (see map above.) Here's a photo of a bus similar to mine - only this one had at least 50 goats tied on the roof!



I left our Ouagadougou hotel at 9 a.m. The taxi took me to the wrong SOGEBAF (I called it soggy-bath because of the humidity) bus station, but I managed to figure things out and - with fractured French - grabbed a second taxi to the other soggy-bath station just barely in time to catch the 10 a.m. bus.... which left four hours later. Sigh. The "station" was a deeply rutted alley lined with ramshackle stalls in the midst of a veritable garbage dump. The air was still and stinky, the heat and humidity stifling. I continuously watered and salted myself to stave off heat exhaustion as I waited. After a couple of hours of this, I visited a "restroom" and looked down into a toilet pit filled with writhing yellow maggots. YUCK!  (In defense of Burkina Faso: it has few natural resources and is one of the world’s poorest countries. That I found any restroom was a minor miracle.)


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 Dori.  Parking on a bit of high ground amidst the rainwater lakes, the driver announced that we'd go no further that night. The road was impassable in the dark and, bedsides, the previous week a bus temporarily stuck in the mud between Dori and Gorom-Gorom had been attacked by armed robbers and the passengers relieved of their valuables. Our bus would depart at 5 a.m.

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 Africa and now I was! Besides, the African people with whom I was sharing these conditions have to spend their entire lives this way. With a fuller appreciation of how 80 percent of the world lives, I could go to sleep. (Nicely rationalized, Lou!) Zzzzz


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 Sahel changed from extreme wet to extreme dry. Nothing in moderation here.

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 Sahara called the "blue people" because the indigo-dyed clothing rubs off onto their dark skin. Traditionally, they keep their mouths covered at all times in public.



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 Ouagadougou after the 41-hour round-trip journey, and Joan photographed my filthy travel shirt so I wouldn't forget the experience. Not likely!



Other photos of Benin & Burkina Faso

From Ouagadougou, we headed north to go trekking in Dogon country. See MALI




GUIDEBOOK:  West Africa (Lonely Planet)




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     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net