The sculpture of Mama Wati and the Tree of Forgetfulness

The sculpture of Mama Wati and the Tree of Forgetfulness

Ouidah, a small town on Benin’s south coast is synonymous with two powerful entities: one- slavery confined to the crumbling architecture of European Empires and the four-kilometre route from town to sea known as The Route des Esclaves. The second, still ever-present by shrines and temples is the belief in the spiritual world of Voodoo. Lightly touched on in Article 9 – The Marche des Feticheurs. The towns salt licked casual pace rather like the Cape Coast in Ghana rarely belies the strategic importance of Ouidah. Earth brown properties flaking like exposed mummified bodies surely record scenes of human degradation and dehumanisation considered all part of a days work to the slave traders and buyers.

La Case Zomai marking the place of the holding cells

La Case Zomai marking the place of the holding cells

The Portuguese, the first European arrivals built their fort Sao Joao Batista in the late 17th century. But unlike other forts that followed, Batista stood in land and slaves, once purchased were marched down to the sea and the waiting ships. After 1492 and Christopher Columbus discovery of the Americas, the necessity for a workforce to develop the lands took a higher priority. The Portuguese first arrived in 1580, their large wooden ships, mammoth, powerful and advanced, terrified the onlookers. Kpate-an ancestral spirit declared that they either came from beneath the sea or from another realm. People had viewed the horizon as the meeting of the sea and the sky into one – nothing lay beyond.

Mural by F Bandeira depicitng false freedom by death at the communal grave

Mural by F Bandeira depicitng false freedom by death at the communal grave

The first slaves were criminals already condemned to die. Their fate dealt an ironic twist, where death was resigned to forced labour. As other European powers arrived, British, French, Dutch and Danish, all constructing their forts and trading in the same manner, the number of condemned soon petered out. Weaponry such as canons and guns were sold to the King of Dahomey to wage conflict on his enemies, creating prisoners of war who appropriately became slaves. Finally, to which supplied the greater bulk of the industry, were those captured in raids. The slaves, many who were marched hundreds of kilometres down from the north to Ouidah were purchased at Les Place des Encheres, a small square in the towns southern district. The Europeans would arrive with various gifts: mirrors, jewellery, tobacco, alcohol, oil and shoes for purchasing. One canon could obtain 15 male slaves or 21 females. Les Place des Encheres was also known as The Place of Chacha, referring to the energetic pace of Francisco de Souza. Though Portuguese he came to Ouidah from Brazil, from a mixed parentage, his mother being Brazilian. De Souza having become a close confidant with King Guezo, was honoured by being appointed his representative and middleman to the European slave trading. The Dahomey King was expected to maintain a minimum of 41 wives, matching his sovereign status. However, being a minimum meant it was easily surpassed. Francisco de Souza, respected, admired and trusted in court held more than 50 wives and fathered over 200 children.

The tree of return and the spiritual statue of Aziza beneath

The tree of return and the spiritual statue of Aziza beneath

The Route des Esclaves takes in six principle stops, each one paramount in telling the story of this harrowing four-kilometre journey. The Place des Encheres commences the initial stage in the slave’s journey to the sea. Shackled together down what is today Rue Don Francisco de Souza and the Brazilian quarter of Ouidah. The sand road soon passes several green and blue statues designed by Cyprien Toukoudagba. Royal emblems of various Abomey chiefs including Ganyinhessou who is represented by an ibis with a drum at its feet. The calling of an ibis could rival the distance from the power of a drum. An arched chameleon and a roaring lion define the preference of two further kings. Almost midway, the broad, pock-marked road passes the Tree of Forgetfulness symbolised by the water goddess of Mami Wata. Mystical to the locals (not the Europeans) who believed one’s identity, history, family, clan and culture could be erased by turning around the tree. Seven times for a woman and nine for a man in accordance with the number of ribs, each gender was supposed to possess. Mami Wata carries a trumpet, drum and shaker, the noise used to summon her presence.

A three headed Mami Wata symbol of a Dahomey King

A three headed Mami Wata symbol of a Dahomey King

Behind the Memorial Zomachi, an unfinished four-storey villa on the edge of Zoungbodi village stands three statues to represent the Case Zomai. A formidable building void of light and heat, a holding house for slaves in wait for the arriving ships. A minimum of two weeks, shackled in the same positions they would soon endure onboard the long voyage out. Women positioned on their backs on the ships port-side, while men remained on their stomachs on the starboard of the vessel. Kept apart so the crew could have access to the women without the knowledge of the male slaves. They were given one a meal a day to ascertain who were the strongest slaves. Those who died at the Case Zomai were transported to a large communal grave nearby. A profoundly sobering mural created by F. Bandeira depicts skeletal figures surrounded by strokes of blood. A statue of a man breaking his shackles symbolises freedom at death or perhaps ‘false freedom’. Those that survived the wait and were considered fit for purpose continued to L’Arbre du Retour – The Tree of Return nearby. Passing around the kigelia africana au saucis three times would ensure your spirits return, even if you perished abroad. The statue Aziza of a human with a trees head marks the harmonious spiritual union of man and tree. The routes final kilometre passes through open countryside, lush, green and the placid blue of the lagoon where fishermen cast out nets from canoes made from hollowed tree-trunks.

A pillar of Egoun in front of the Door Of No Return Ouidah

A pillar of Egoun in front of the Door Of No Return Ouidah

On November 30th 1995 on the International Day of Tolerance, the Door of No Return was inaugurated at the end of the route. The final marker to the crashing Atlantic beyond. An imposing confronting monument of an orange-white arch with slaves leaving the Tree of Return at the top. Iron figures represent the men and women while children, a small figure leans behind, were often received as a bonus when trading. Iron poignantly representing the spirit of the clans, the Fon, Assin, Mina, Yoruba, Hausa, Bariba, Fulan -of all the people who have gone. Two small white circular temples stand close to the point where the sea greets the land. One for Mami Wata, goddess, mother of water and another to the God of wind and land.

Large beach front monument showing the shape of Benin and the cross in between

Large beach front monument showing the shape of Benin and the cross in between

Facts: Ouidah is easily accessible with plenty of shared taxis shuttling between the Togo border and the Gare de Jonquet in Cotonou. Ouidahs centre is only a further kilometre in from the junction, but some of the better accommodation is located down on the beach four kilometres south of town. A zemi-john costs roughly 1000cfa depending on your negotiating skills. A taxi around 3000cfa.

Accommodation:

Auberge de la Diaspora spreads across both sides of the road. Prices for a bungalow with fan start at 13,000cfa which includes breakfast and free use of a large swimming pool. Camping is allowed under the palm trees for 3000cfa per night. The restaurant and bar are set around the pool, or one can take a shaded table out on the sands nearby. The pool is well serviced, but the external walls remain unfinished resembling a partial construction site. It is quiet and secure with off-road parking. Located 200m east from The Door of No return. Wifi Available.

Casa del Papa: mob: +229 95 95 39 04  www.casadelpapa.com

Set between the ocean and the lagoon several kilometres west of the Door of No Return. Resort styled complex with multiple pools, a volleyball court, two bars, restaurant. Prices including breakfast range from 37,000 – 68,000cfa. Wifi is available.

In the town centre, there are multiple eateries. One recommended place is the small maquis of Mama Brunel on the west side street of Place Chacha. Selling fresh fish, rice, pate and for around 1500cfa alongside cold beer. On the south-west corner of Place Chacha is a small cafe selling coffee, beer, omelettes, spaghetti, cous-cous, with a few outside tables to watch visitors start their tour on the Route des Esclaves. A few women set up simple food close to the beach road saving the hike back to town. A large thatched bar, about 100metres on from where the beach road forks opposite The Door of No Return sells large bottles of beer for 600cfa (half the price to the hotels where it’s 1000cfa for a small bottle) — also simple food such as rice, fried fish, sauce.

The Voodoo Python temple in the centre of town attracts an endless string of curious visitors. Over 45 pythons are housed in the temple where you can have one draped around your neck. Considered great spiritual protectors and not just in Voodoo. 1000Cfa entry. 2000Cfa for still photography.

Fort of Sao Joao Batista houses both the museum of history and artefacts from the old Maison de Bresil. A swift tour takes you through a couple of rooms covering European exploration, the slave coast and the spread of Voodoo to Haiti, Cuba and Brazil. Free entry.

Routes des Esclaves starts at the square and finishes four kilometres away at The Door of No Return. A guide isn’t obligatory, but it will undoubtedly help bring history and the conditions of the slaves into greater focus. You can walk the entire way or hire a zemi-john or a private taxi. Hopping in and out at the marked points. I paid 10,000cfa for an English speaking guide which lasted three hours and was certainly well worth the money. Guides will generally approach you; fees are variable. A group of guides can be found across the road from The Door of No Return.