Casting out a circular net on Lake Aheme

Casting out a circular net on Lake Aheme

The Four of a Kind is a two-part article that centres on four different projects in Benin that promote tours and programs that benefit both tourists and local communities alike. The villagers, local guides, staff and the organisations all receive a percentage from the overall tariffs. Providing visitors with unique insights to a villages way of life which might not be easily achievable any other way. Certainly eliminating the possible intrusion and awkwardness of an unexpected visitor traipsing around areas deemed sacred and private. The projects harness employment, formulate income while remaining devoted to the sensitivities of a community and the needs of a tourist. Looking towards sustainability, the fragility of the environment and resource frugality. In Africa, where hand to mouth existence is mainstream, it’s essential to try and alleviate or lessen the impact of our wake. In contrast to the seclusion of a resort, ecotourism puts you at the centre of adventure while making a significant contribution (not just financial).

Trees in the shallows of Lake Aheme

Trees in the shallows of Lake Aheme

1) Attired in an Arctic blue football kit which glowed like a jewel under the oppressive glare of a December sun. The man stood up, placed his bare feet on the furthest slat of wood and with great vigour, almost launched himself into the lake. Instead, under a conjurers spell, my eyes had fixed on him and almost missed the trick, a circular net that opened out in mid-flight like a hungry claw. Once it had sunk beneath the milky brown surface, it was slowly hauled back in.  Anything within its circumference would be trapped as the net closed up like a fist. There was a quiet look of feigned disappointment onboard, leaning over to inspect the catch, a single spiralled shell. However, like most forms of traditional hunting, it required patience, resilience, multiple attempts and some dousing of luck. This was only a demonstration, the genial captain, beaming a jack-O’-lantern smile passed the reigns over to me. Switching positions, the line itself was looped back and forth across the left hand with the net folded in and clasped between thumb and index like a peg. The right hand, fully opened, threaded its fingers into a section of netting close to the edge. With both arms extended, the idea was to pull the arms back once then launch it outwards, similar to throwing a rugby ball. It was essential to let go at the right point with only one hand; otherwise, it would fly off with all the grace of a led balloon. The captain, perhaps out of tact and diplomacy (after all he was being paid), administered an enthusiastic round of applause at my attempt which, without sounding smug did perform rather well. However, fumbling through the net afterwards, I had managed to go one less than a shell!

Local from Camate Shakaloke who makes black soap

Local from Camate Shakaloke who makes black soap

Crab catching was a woman’s responsibility, easier than the complexities of net fishing which only the men were deemed qualified. Crab baiting came down to timing just as much as luck, as the device did not trap the crab but merely distracted it. A hooked piece of fish hung centrally from an arched pole that spanned the circumference of a small circular net. In order to reach the fish, the crab would enter the net and only be caught if the woman pulled the trap out while the crab was feeding. A small piece of floating polystyrene or a fragment of a flip-flop signified the presence of a crab trap below. The villagers had devised other methods of fishing as ingenious as they were simple. Laying vast lines of bamboo tubes whose hollow interiors could offer sanctuary to smaller fish. Their fate sealed when both hands clasped the ends when collecting from the lake.

Fishermen returning back to his village on Lake Aheme

Fishermen returning back to his village on Lake Aheme

The body of Lake Aheme in south Benin was over twenty kilometres in length and half that in width. Ranging between two to ten metres in depth while four rivers fed into it and another flowed out to sea. The lake was sacred; stilt raised temples comprising various voodoo deities hovered above the surface, including Mami Wata, a water goddess actively worshipped by the villagers. Fishing remained prohibited around the enclosure of the temple which in many cases had hardly developed beyond a few rows of poles, literally marking a perimetre. The ban on fishing here allowed numbers to grow. But realistically, the impact was slight in relation to the velocity of fishing going on. Learning about fishing techniques, gliding along in a pirogue and visiting some of the villages here were part of a line of programmes on offer for tourists to participate in. Offering a richer understanding through closer involvement to see how techniques, traditions, industries and cultures continued against the greater pull of modernisation and the glittering lure of big cities.

Hiking up in the hills above Camate Shakaloke

Hiking up in the hills above Camate Shakaloke

2) During the invasions under the Dan-Homey Kingdom, the villagers from both Camate and Shakaloke fled up into the nearby hills. Seeking sanctuary from the slave raids and only returning after the fall of Abomey. Taking refuge amongst gigantic boulders and inselbergs which loom over the villages like the humped back of a whale.

Perspiration soon gathered across my face like drizzle on a car window in the short but demanding climb to the top. My guide, Mr Bachi, appeared to have fared worse, panting and gasping as his large frame required several impromptu rest stops. The dirt path weaved its way through rocks and brief plots full of regimental maize husks. Long since harvested and left to collapse back into the ground. Gigantic baobabs, also known as upside-down trees for their stark branches resemble roots stood leafless but covered in fruit. Hanging from long stems like ball-balls on a macabre Christmas tree. Even up here, cultivated in the squeezed pockets of earth between the boulders are chillies, soja (a variety of bean) and millet. Every square inch of availability has been harnessed, and with some crops finished, the area has been burnt ready for regeneration. The path curves around, passing a small corrugated shed and phone mast which lead onto two oval rocks, one on top of the other like a baby carried on its mothers back. Marking the summit of Shakaloke while a second slightly higher inselberg a kilometre away is attributed to Camate. Across the summit are a series of natural groves, chiselled out by erosion and established in orderly lines just like the maize. Mr Bachi declares that the basins are used as mortars by the Shakaloke women on special occasions. It’s clear to see their adoptive use, being ideal for grinding and pasting with a flat-edged pestle. There is even room here for a small cave, dedicated to Saint Mary with a small effigy outside. The views from here are splendid; one feels like a bird looking down on the vast sweep of marbled green and browns. Scarred with dirt paths and roads that meander alongside the silvery glint of a tin roof and tight knots of mango trees.

Natural basins created by erosion Camate Shakaloke

Natural basins created by erosion Camate Shakaloke

An afternoon stroll through the village from where Mr Bachi appears with greater comfortability brings us in contact with a theatre of interesting characters. The carpenters who saw backwards, the female stone smashers, the elderly lady who makes black soap, the young blacksmiths who use a bicycle wheel to operate the bellows and the braided lady pounding beans in a mammoth wooden mortar. Not forgetting the crooked, white-haired lady in a custard yellow skirt, who Mr Bachi proudly points out, is the oldest and original voodoo dancer here. Her happy glow, radiating like a winter sunset and that ineffable twinkle in her eye, surely suggested she was replete with the good spirits.

Facts: 1) Lake Aheme.

Gite de Possotome. Mob no: +229 67 19 58 37 / 94 38 80 34.   www.ecobenin.org

Dorm: 4500cfa. s/d room without bathroom 6000/7000-8000cfa. s/d room, self-contained 9500/15.000cfa.

Set on the hillside just below the Possotome village and a ten-minute walk from the lake. Rooms (with or without bathrooms) are set around a small shady garden. The large gazebo is an ideal spot for an afternoon drink. Meals can be taken but should be pre-ordered in advance. Excursions are best confirmed the evening before, depending on the tour, fees are paid either to the Gite or the guide. Most tours cost 5000cfa for a two-hour programme and centre but not exclusively on the importance of the lake.

Outside the Gite de Possotome, the options for eating are quite limited. The village itself has a few roadside stalls that pop up in the evening — selling rice, spaghetti, soja and sauce. More substantial offerings can be taken down by the lakeshore. Try Hotel Chez Theo ( +229 96 44 47 88. www.chez-theo.com ) with a large bar and restaurant. Mains start at 4000cfa.

Possotome can be reached from the Come junction on the main coastal Cotonou to Hilakondji highway. Shared taxis run the route from the Gare de Jonquet in Cotonou for 2500cfa. At the junction, your primary source of transport is a zemi-john (motorbike) for roughly 2000cfa to cover the 18km journey. There is the possibility of an empty taxi collective that could be chartered, but prices will start high. It’s essential to negotiate with both forms of transport.

2) Camate Shakaloke: CPN Les Papillons. Mob no: Leandre (manager) +229 97 32 00 96. Gisele (management assistant) +229 97 39 72 14. www.cpnlespapillons.org

Myself resting under a farmers shelter Camate Shakaloke

Myself resting under a farmers shelter Camate Shakaloke

Les Papillons in the village itself has several spacious self-contained bungalows with fan. All are quiet, clean and comfortable: 8000cfa. The premises have an on-site bar and restaurant with several shaded areas for a peaceful drink. Meals such as couscous, spaghetti, rice either with meat, fish and vegetables can be pre-ordered (from 2500cfa). A simple breakfast of fresh bread, confiture, tea and coffee is 1500cfa. Activities generally last for two hours and cost 2500cfa each. Other excursions include Hippo viewing in the Oueme River, the discovery of oracles and divinities, longer hikes into the surrounding countryside, and exploration of Dassa.

Alternatively, one can stay in the main town of Dassa 15km south and visit Camate Shakaloke as a day trip, merging a couple of excursions into one. Though with the intensity of the midday heat it is more advisable to set the tours to morning and late afternoon. Dassa or Dassa-Zoume is a thriving town surrounded by hills comprised of giant boulders. Auberge La Cachette offers simple self-contained, no-frills rooms with upright fan from 5000cfa. It’s rather tired, but the cold beer, good food and friendly staff push it up a notch. It is situated on the other side of town from the station up a dirt lane (300cfa for a zemijohn). Across from the transport park on the other side of the main roundabout is the fancier Auberge de Dassa set within a large quiet garden with wandering antelope and ostriches. Large rooms come with either a/c or fan and the bar and restaurant are well recommended.

Dassa is the last hub on the main north-south highway before it splits towards Parakou in the west and Djougou in the east. Just over 200km from Cotonou and 77kn from Bohicon and Abomey. Shared taxis take roughly 90 minutes from Bohicon (2000cfa). A zemijohn from Dassa to Camate – Shakaloke costs between 700 – 1000cfa one way.