Karl’s Chronicles Article 19 Benin: Four of a Kind Part II
3) Scorched yellows, rust reds, tobacco browns with splodges of green. The parched landscape looked like a Turner painting left out in the rain. Swathes of savannah embedded with rock and stones in brittle earth. The harmattan had arrived, fine dust blown off the Sahara and carried down by the northern winds. Turning the air a hazy vermilion and on bad days it blotted out the sun. The dry dirt roads, pounded into powder by passing transport left the ground, blown up into neighbouring trees that took on a new coat of dark brown. One could be forgiven for thinking the trees like the water jugs and vases were also made of baked clay.
Two kilometres down a bumpy old track, heading further into the African bush was the small village of Taneka Beri. Circular mud huts with thick thatched roofs rippling out across a low hill. Some remained huddled together, linked by a mud wall into a compound while others stood silent and solitary. Mr Latif, the manager and guide of COCITA (Conservatoire de la Civilisation Taneka) accompanied me around the village, pointing out the various voodoo divinities that held spiritual sway over the villagers. Gbana, represented by a tall sheath of dried grass, upright and shaded by an adjacent sacred tree, remained opposite a hut with no entrance. The spirit kept inside, unable to escape but in communication through Gbana. Varou, another divinity made from an arched branch with a straw head, had its cave in Taneka Coco. An ark of stone slabs spreading from its base while a line of hanging calabashes held the remains of old sacrifices. Only women, children and the elderly could come and hold a conference with Varou. The men, I was informed had their divinity elsewhere. Taneka Beri had two divinity priests; both were present, almost naked aside from a leather pouch. Brandishing a long pipe they each had their quarters, approachable for consultation. Further into the village, past old and wise baobabs whose sparse shade offered some respite for the livestock, sat a lady making mustard balls to later sell at market — left out to dry on a large sheet of tarpaulin. Three balls would make 100cfa, and by the mix still in the bowl, she reckoned on a batch exceeding 400. A possible income of 13,333cfa (£17.21) if she managed to shift the entire lot.
In the evening, back along the main road, COCITA had built a small museum displaying voodoo exhibits, armoury, weaponry, as well as musical instruments. A small group of highly energetic children put on a display of traditional music and dance. Banging drums, plucking a kora and blowing (desperately) into a flute while three girls in partial costume took to the floor in a charming display of local moves mixed with modern jives. The entire performance ended in rapturous applause and much giggling.
4) Isolated for a considerable period and barely interacting with the outside world, the Otammari also known as the Somba, share a close affiliation with the Betammaribe, just across the frontier in Togo. Like the Betammaribe they constructed fortress styled dwellings to bolster themselves against possible slave raids, increasing their strong suspicion of outsiders. From this, the Otammari culture became secretive, a protective behaviour to ensure its survival under times of hostilities rendered during the Dan -Homey rule further south. Even holding out against stronger influences of both Islam and the more recent colonial occupation of the French. The Otammari, like the Yowa further south, are part of the Voltaic speaking tribes which traces back to the Niger-Congo family of languages. Having swept over the southern half of West Africa and south of the equator. During President Kerekou’s reign, the government, horrified by foreign media images of ‘quintessential Africa’, the Somba were forced to swap their near nakedness to wear modern alien clothing. Such ignorant disrespect, the ferment of an iniquitous campaign only hardened the Somba, strengthening their reserved and insular outlook. Today, the pressure of work, coupled with the excitement of modern living, has lured the young towards the bigger towns. Migration is one claw that gradually undermines an already fragile existence on many traditionalist communities the world over.
The tatas (mud houses) rise windowless with only a single entry. Passing several sacrificial altars in homage to their ancestors just outside the door. Inside the small oval recess appear three stone slabs, used as mortars to crush the grains under the weight of a flat stone. Beyond, in a blackened room (periodically fumigated to kill off any resident termites) taking up the entire ground floor was the stable. Established on its own level was a small circular kitchen which gave access to the rooms and granaries above. Cereals were apportioned to the granaries, accessed by a narrow ladder from where the conical roof could be pulled off, like a lid from saucepan. Before pounding into various flours, vegetables would be spread across the roof to dry. Their shelf life extended to see the family through the long six-month dry season when little grew. A tatas takes roughly six months to construct, done from memory rather than drawn plans, completed before the first rains come in to mark the shift in season. To welcome in future success and prosperity, much chapalo (millet beer) is consumed, and the ancestors thanked.
Facts: Taneka Beri COCITA-ONG. Eco-Benin Village. Mob no: Latif +229 97 05 50 70 / 64 30 73 64. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Set on the edge of Taneka Beri village within its own enclosure and 3km from the main road. Eco – Benin, (A partnership between the American Embassy and the Benin Government) offers 12 large rooms (5500cfa) within six circular bungalows. Rooms come with a self-contained washroom (bucket of water for washing) and outside pit toilets. Beds have mosquito nets; rooms come equipped with ceiling fans and solar lighting. Recharging electrical appliances is by use of the generator. Drinks and meals can either be taken in the main reception room or within a central gazebo. Meals such as couscous, rice, chicken, fish, spaghetti should be pre-ordered and cost around 2000cfa. Breakfast consists of tea, coffee, bread and omelette (1000cfa). Excursions generally cost around 3000cfa each. Entrance to the museum is 2000cfa.
Djougou, the nearest major town is 15km away, and a zemijohn from here is 1500cfa one way. If your continuing north towards Natitingou for the Atakora range and to explore the Tatas-Somba area it’s worth picking up a shared taxi (2000cfa) from the main road that passes Taneka Beri. Transport from Djougou passes this way; otherwise you’ll be going south only to return north. If you’re coming down from the north and plan to continue onto Dassa, public transport can be found in the station next to the Djougou market. A taxi collective costs 4000cfa.
Djougou is a large bustling town, an essential hub on the main route linking Natitingou to Savalou in the far south. Due to this the town has a lively packed market opposite the central roundabout. The energy and personality of the people, markedly different from the coastal towns are worth a visit in itself with Islam bearing a much stronger presence here. The Motel du Djougou has several thatched bungalows and a line of chalet styled rooms starting at 7000cfa. Set within a large stony compound with ample space for off-road parking. Self- contained rooms come with either fan or a/c. The motel has a bar and a restaurant (though nobody was eating) and several outdoor seating areas. Food stalls pop up around the Cine Sabari in the centre as well as outside the market.
Koussoukoingou – Tatas -Somba
La Perle de L’Atakora. Mob no: Mr. Parfait +229 97 35 02 86 / 67 46 78 01 Email: email@example.com
USADF – A partnership between the United States Development Foundation and the Benin government. The Otammari Lodge has eight large circular rooms (8000cfa) over two floors, set within a mock Tatas-Somba inspired fortress. Well furnished rooms with a large mosquito netted bed, wardrobe, circular table, fan and washroom. Separately located toilets are just outside. Breakfast (1500cfa) consists of tea, coffee, baguette and omelette. Meals can be prepared on-site if your part of a large group; otherwise you can eat at the village buvette located a ten-minute walk away. Meals generally revolve around Ankasa (pounded cassava), roasted guinea-fowl, fried fish with tomato sauce. It is worth pre-ordering your dinner when you take your lunch.
Tours here start at 2000cfa, rising to 6000cfa for longer durations or where additional transport is required. Recommended are The Secrets of the Tatas and The Savannah and Culture circuits. Hiking along the old Colonial German route is also popular.
Natitingou, home of former President Kerekou who launched a revolution that effected Benin for almost twenty years, stands partially in the shadows of the subtle but alluring Atakora range. The town has a few banks with ATM’s, a couple of internet cafes and grocery stores selling the basics. Reaching Koussoukoingou, a zemijohn will cost 3000cfa for the 35-minute ride on the main western Boukoumbe road which continues onto Nadoba in Togo. Otherwise, you could wait for a shared taxi to fill up (best on market days which revolve to a four-day cycle) or charter one from the central station.
The Auberge le Vieux Cavalier located at the edge of town in the hillside has several self-contained budget-priced rooms (6000cfa) formed around a central communal area. The place is open to locals who come for an evening beer, but the site remains generally quiet without the pumping music that usually companies an African bar. Three hundred metres back down the same road towards the highway is the Auberge la Montagne, with large well kept spacious s/c rooms, and an on-site bar and restaurant. Several inexpensive maquis (local restaurants) line the main road. In the evening, staff set up tables and chairs (al-fresco) outside their dark internal bars. Most are found right alongside the kerb.