With Togo behind me, the coastal road continued flowing like one of Africa’s great rivers, staying close to the Atlantic after turning southeast from The Ivory Coast and Ghanaian frontier. Until finally terminating at the frenetic metropolis of Lagos in Nigeria, some 800km and four countries later.
Entering into little known Benin, whose twenty-year introverted character was the swing back from a fractured and suffocating revolution- had put me in a mist — fumbling around with misconceptions and an overwhelming sense of being lost. I could find no reason for its manifestation. I had, after all, only just crossed a border from one country into another. The language was still French, the landscape had hardly altered, but all the other nuances had shifted. Those first couple of hours were similar to the disorientation of diving, where you can no longer see the surface or define the seabed. The decades of imploding revolutions were long gone, but a historical stain will always blemish the face, seeping through the superior masks that governments and nations like to wear.
By the mid-seventies, the stain was haemorrhaging; political attitudes had drastically and abruptly changed against democracy. Rolling in the heavy-handed vernacular of Major Mathieu Kerekou’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. Who soon embraced the communist countries of North Korea, the P.R. Of China and the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin of the West. Dahomey, the French colonial name inspired by the Dan-Homey Kingdom quickly became the Republique Populaire du Benin in 1975, fifteen years after achieving independence on August 1st 1960.
Active demonstrations took place at the close of the 1990s, calling for Kerekou’s resignation. The Marxist strategy was dropped (a condition imposed by France for economic support and just as likely by the IMF and World Bank in agreement to another financial bale out). Kerekou seemed to turn a new leaf, accepting defeat in the elections of ’91 by his rival Nicephore Soglo, while admitting gross errors of his leadership and religious conversion to Catholicism. With support from past opposition, Kerekou took just over half the votes in the 1996 election bringing him back into the presidency. As democracy filled the political void of Communist ideals, tense relations across the sea began to relax, certainly with the United States and France. A constitutional rule prohibited politicians over the age of 70 from running for elections, which ruled out both Soglo and Kerekou from the 2006 race — effectively opening out the arena to new candidates after decades of the same distrusted faces. Patrice Talon is the current president having taken office in 2016. With democracy came reform and a tentative embrace towards tourism. Since the early years of the ’90s, Benin has grown more confident, and tourism plays a key figure towards the nation’s image and revenue. It is now an accessible and rewarding country to visit, attractive from its rich history, spiritual religion and striking northern landscapes.
Togo had rapidly formed a warm, positive impression on me. The sincere ‘joie de vivre’ of its people from Lomé on the coast, all the way up north to Kande, had exuded a remarkable charm. Just like the rhythms of a popular tune, she had gently worked her way with guile, likeability and creativity. I am hoping Benin will be a following verse to the same score. Even from extensive travels across Africa, I knew very little about Benin. Sure, I knew exactly where she lay on the world map, was the birthplace of Voodoo and home to the Dan-Homey Kingdom. But even the last two only formed a greater clarity from neighbouring travels.
About 30 kilometres from the Togolese border and a quiet attractive port of call in Benin is Grand Popo, straddling the amber coloured sands along the Atlantic. Her success grew from the slave trade, a port which initially competed against the larger enterprises of Porto Novo and Ouidah. Under the Dan-Homey Kingdom, King Agadja suppressed the principalities south, all the way to Ouidah on the coast. Allowing him a monopoly to control international trade, and slaves became the bulk of his merchandise. Gradually, through intensive abolitionist movements in Europe, the practice was phased out. Though France did not outlaw the trade until 1818, commerce had significantly shifted. With the chances of capturing further slaves having become difficult since the depletion from The Kingdom of Abomey’s excessive rituals regarding human sacrifice.
Today, scant evidence of old Grand Popo exists. Much of the town was slowly swallowed up by the encroaching sea in the 1960s. Colonial villas, commercial shops, bureaucratic offices, even a church disappeared to the waves. Retreating like the noon-day tide back into a nondescript village. It is shaded under the parasol belt of coconut palms that rise between the sea and the highway. Just beyond the fertile banks of lily’s and mangroves of the placid Mono river is the voodoo village of Heive, accessed either by pirogue or the long narrow coastal isthmus. Catching just a glimpse of a rooftop, a snatch of a clumsy wall bordering a dirt lane and a fishermen’s podium on the crest of a sandbank. The village, like Togoville, has several fetish shrines. One of the first, a mud baked mound with cowrie shells for eyes known as Leghba, remains on the perimetre, strategic for its protection of the entire village. At Heives heart is the snake temple, a blue painted serpent slides along the outer wall. Within the compound stands a further shrine, Ougou, a jumble of broken car parts, blessed appropriately for one’s safe travel. Though perhaps one might be deterred from taking a car. For a small offering, the priest can give you some black powder to eat (burnt and crushed herbs), washed down with sodabi (hard-liquor) served from a blackened bottle encrusted with bones and ritualistic vessels tied to the rim. The two together – a potent mule-kick to the present, certainly lifts the mist. One leaves the temple buzzing from the alcohol but carrying deliberations against the easy submission to taking the powder.
One of the most intriguing sights in Grand Popo is the Villa Karo, a large complex which straddles both sides of the road — run by a Finnish-African organization that promotes both Finnish and Beninoise artists. The main building, a beautifully restored colonial structure close to the beach, contains an extensive library, further art and living quarters for visiting artists. In the adjacent property with its seven arched verandah, is a permanent exhibition on Mami Wata – The Mother of Water, a voodoo deity who takes multiple forms and is well known in Haiti, Brazil as well as Benin. Over one hundred different sculptures are presented across two rooms with references in both English and French. Across the road is the bright and modern gallery which at the time of writing was exhibiting a series of works by Mounnia Youssef, a Lebanese-Togolese artist based in Cotonou — concentrating on women’s identity and liberation through their hair. On the first Saturday of every month, the Villa Karo hosts lively and deservedly popular music and dance evening, showcasing local and international artists.
Facts: Looking like a clenched fist, Benin is located in between Togo to the west and Nigeria to the east. Burkina Faso lays to the far northwest with a short border with Niger in the northeast. There is no international airline in Benin though several airlines operate services in and out of Cotonou. Air France, Air Belgium, Air Maroc. No direct flights from the U.K., you will need to go via Paris, Brussels, or Casablanca.
Visas are done on-line now and are very fast. A 3-month, multiple entry visa costs 90 euros, and a one-month single entry is 70 euros. Fill in the form on-line, pay the fee, and you will receive the visa as an e-mail attachment straight away. Though they don’t ask for a yellow fever certificate, it is strongly recommended. www.evisa.gov.bj The site can be translated into English.
It is worth taking an anti-malarial, as malaria in certain areas carries a higher risk. Mefloquine (Lariam) is a once a week pill but comes with numerous side-effects. Doxycycline is a daily pill, less problematic and is also an anti-biotic, (though taking long term could have implications). See your G.P. Though the NHS still carry these drugs on prescription, you have to pay individually, i.e. one packet = one order. Take a strong repellent, and a mosquito net is always a good investment. One mosquito can ruin a nights sleep! Ask your G.P. for recommendations about mosquito sprays. I have started to find repellents becoming less effective, indeed in their advertised duration of protection. I wonder if the mosquito is becoming immune to these ‘deet’ based solutions.
The current rates for CFA, Benin’s national currency which can also be used in Togo, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon. £1=761, $1= 597 , 1 euro =655 .
Grand Popo can be reached by shared taxi from Cotonou for around 2000cfa. Departing from the Gare du Junquet. Any public taxi plying the Cotonou to Lomé route can be flagged down with a request to be dropped off at the Grand Popo junction from where its roughly three kilometres to the very end. A zemi-john (motorbike taxi) costs 1000cfa from the intersection all the way to the end. Always negotiate!
Lion Bar mob: +229 95 42 05 17. firstname.lastname@example.org
Situated at the edge of the beach under a tight knot of palm trees, Lion Bar is a very relaxed place to stay. Rooms are simple with a large bed, mosquito net and fan. Prices start at 5000cfa with external toilet and shower. Hammocks, recliners, tables and chairs are set out under the trees. Cocktails cost 1000cfa and small beers at 600cfa. Meals can be ordered for 2500cfa. Lion is a Rastafarian place with chilled out music playing during the evening.
Auberge de Grand-Popo mob: +229 22 43 00 47 www.voyageurbenin.com
Set right at the end of the Grand Popo road, this is the towns high-end option. Restored colonial buildings are looking across manicured gardens and the sea beyond. The auberge has a swimming pool and an on-site restaurant. Quiet and peaceful. Rooms start at 17,500 – 28,000cfa, all are self-contained with fan and a/c options.
A wander along the main Grand Popo road will bring out various places to eat. Good coffee can be found at Villa Karo’s little roadside cafe next to the research centre. Several women set up stalls in the evening selling pate, kom, fried fish and sauce. One popular lady opens all day, selling a selection of Beninoise food such as beans, fish, rice, sauce, chickpeas for around 300cfa. She is roughly 100metres up the road from Lion Bar on the left if you were heading back to the junction.
Villa Karo: mob: +229 94 20 31 20 www.villakaro.org
Certainly the most informative venue in Grand Popo and in Benin for that matter. Beautifully presented, extremely knowledgable and highly recommended. A fantastic showcase for both African and international art.
Hiring a pirogue for a few hours on the Mono River is a relaxing way to appreciate the scenery of mangroves and slow pace of life. Every accommodation knows a captain and can arrange a trip. Two hours is roughly 10,000cfa (inc. a zemi-john to the boat and back) where you can spend an hour on the river and perhaps include a tour around the voodoo lanes of Heives as well.