Frontier Travel, General

The revelation that is Benin

By | Wednesday, 29th March, 2023

Our head of marketing Dave Waddell and I have recently returned from the most extraordinary of fact-finding trips to Ghana, Togo, and Benin. When I say ‘extraordinary’, I really mean it. Let’s dive in, focusing this particular blog on Benin. Before we do, however, a little bit of background.

Best-laid plans

Owing to the pandemic, this was a much-delayed trip. We have been meaning to begin working in West Africa for some time, and this was to be our first foray into the region. Our plan had been to go in April 2020, and then, when that proved impossible, in a couple of brief travel windows during the pandemic, both of which were largely scuppered by Covid-19 rules and regulations.

Sadly, original plans for the journalist and author Sophy Roberts to accompany us wearing her Financial Times hat were also affected by the change in dates. Nonetheless, we got there, with everything finally coming together in March this year. We travelled to Ghana, landing and staying a night in Accra, before exploring the country’s Cape Coast and Lake Volta, after which we crossed into Togo for a day and night before heading to Benin, where we spent the majority of our time.

Our travel in Benin included the region of Grand Popo and the city Ouidah — both based on the coast — and a trip up north via the beautiful Lake Ahémé, a stop off in Abomey and in Dassa Zoume, before visiting the Otamari and Taneka in the north-west. A round trip of six days, it ended with a visit to Ganvié and the country’s capital Porto Novo, before flying out of Cotonou.

The power of Voodoo

Like many countries, to travel in Benin is to travel through a country that is home to a range of modern and traditional cultures. However, Benin is unique in that it is the only country, as far as I am aware, in which an animist system of belief — in this case, Voodoo — is a state religion, such is its still growing popularity. Its success comes from the fact that it is a hugely accommodating religion, so much so that it is perfectly possible for a family to consist – as is true in the case of our guide Adam Kissira – of a Muslim father, a Christian mother, and Voodoo grandmother. ‘Everyone in Benin,’ says Kissira, ‘is Voodoo’, such is its inherently malleable nature.

Indeed, it is in the context of beginning to understand the meaning of Voodoo that our already eye-opening adventure became what we all hope for when we immerse ourselves in a culture that is not our own: life-changing. As a result of a chance conversation with Joan Riera (who arranged the trip, accompanied us, and is also an anthropologist) about a West African tribe’s historic treatment of children with Downs Syndrome, Dave — who has a son with Downs — was interested to know what it means to be born with Downs in Voodoo society.

To shorten a long and delightful story, that initial interest moved the trip into new territory, one where everybody — host and guest — found themselves on a journey into a place of self-discovery, not least Dave. To have a child with Downs in Voodoo society is to be the recipient of great fortune. Children with Downs — or with any ‘disability’ — are considered, as I understand it, sacred: a great spirit has chosen to live with you. For Dave, this reflected much of what he and his family feel — from a less magical or more secular position — about their own good fortune, but to have it reflected back at him at a societal level was a revelation.

While sticking to the outlines of the original plan, Joan and Adam adapted the itinerary to help grow and enrich the experience, such that it became, as Dave explains in the following clip he made for a book-signing event in Australia, a genuinely transformational trip, and one that ended with a visit to Tohossou River, named after a Voodoo deity, and source, it is believed, of all ‘disabled’ people, irrespective of where they are born. In Voodoo, these sacred people are also known as ‘tohossou’ and when they die are ‘buried’ in the river, in clay coffins. We have all returned changed.

As well as work for Journeys by Design, Dave Waddell is an author and his most recent book – written with Adam Scott – was launched in Australia whilst he was in Benin. This video was played at the launch.

The effects of slavery

As is true of Ghana and Togo, any visitor to Benin is necessarily reminded of the effects of the Atlantic slave trade, which began in the mid-sixteenth century, and did not cease until the end of the nineteenth. Slaves were usually prisoners taken during wars — often perpetuated and certainly fueled by the trade — between rival kingdoms, who were then traded with various Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English slave merchants and then ‘exported’ via the likes of Ouidah, for a time West Africa’s largest biggest slave port.

The relentless reach of the trade was such that it forced whole populations to change the way they lived. On our way north, for example, we stayed in Dassa-Zoume, where we were granted an audience with the King of the Yoruba. It was here that we learnt that the Yaruba in this part of the world took to the hills that overlook the royal palace and the rest of the town, where they spent hundreds of years in permanent hiding from slavers. They only came down in 1924. Meanwhile, the water-based Ganvié or the ‘African Venice’, a still-standing 40,000-strong ‘village’ on stilts, was founded by the Toffinu, who made Lake Nokoué their home, again as a result of the slave trade.

A rich and flexible itinerary

Given our own highly personalised journey into the social norms of Voodoo society and the extremely sobering story of how modern Benin is in part shaped by the slave trade, it’s easy to forget everything else that makes the country what it is.

As said, our trip was extraordinary, and most of it was because we spent much of our time in the hands of an excellent and highly knowledgeable team. With Riera and Kassira, we were hosted by the Otamari — the fabled ‘earth architects’ of northern — and by the nearby Teneka. We had the opportunity to explore the African-Brazilian quarter of Porto Novo, watch a Zangbeto performance in Grand Popo, and an Egungun ceremony in Ouidah, and visit a host of accommodations.

I could go on, but won’t: there’ll be time for plenty more on Benin, and also on Togo and Ghana. Suffice to say, the key to the success of the trip was the quality of the guiding and the itinerary’s ability to flex to individual and group needs and wants, to meet expectations and to provide at the same time for the most unexpected of experiences. Simply put, Benin was a revelation. I look forward to sharing so much more.

Hannah Rayner and Dave Waddell worked closely with Joan Riera and Adam Kissira of Middle Africa to design their trip to Benin. For more on travel to West Africa, please do get in touch with Hannah. She’d love to chat. 

All images copyright Hannah Rayner and Dave Waddell

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