Sunday, July 20, 2008

Living on Stilts (Ganvié, Benin)

Precariously balanced in tiny wooden canoes called pirogues, we poled and paddled a few kilometres around the stilt villages of the tiny West African nation of Benin. These unusual travel wonders were created over three hundred years ago when the local tribes moved into the shallow Lake Nakoue to avoid capture and enslavement by the dominant Dahomey people whose spiritual beliefs forbade them from venturing into the lake.

As we approach, the awkward wooden and bamboo huts perch on posts only a couple of yards above the lake surface, their thatched roofs sitting atop like unkempt hair.

Most of the men are fisherman. Fishing is a combination of traditional throw-nets along with a carefully managed system of fencing off parts of the lake with local reeds. The fences are moved and the areas reduced to corral the fish into small areas to provide an easy and ready source of food. The extra fish is taken to market and traded for other necessities.

These water pens are like fields of a farmyard, taking large expanses of the lake leaving narrow roads or channels for navigation around the lake. It is quite an operation without the need for bullocks, ploughs and planting.

Meanwhile the women go about their every day life as if they were on living on land, tending to their family’s laundry, meals, childcare and the typical daily chores of home life. Often hidden under oversized hats, the women trade fish, fruit and vegetables with other villagers treating their pirogue as a veritable floating market. Few houses are connected with walkways so any business away from their hut requires paddling to another wooden building.

By far the most popular of these stilt villages is Ganvié which to my mind is far too touristy to be enjoyable, or even comfortable. There is an ugly tourist shop and café while the children clamber around yelling “yovo, yovo” (which loosely translates as "stranger" or “white man” in a friendly way) and demanding “cadeaux, cadeaux” (gifts). Some try to sell primarily tourist tat at inflated prices, though some of the local colorful patchwork is impressive. Others pose for photos (handstands in the pirogue is a popular trick though you have to admire their balance given that sitting in a pirogue is enough of a feat) and ask for money in return. That being said, the funds they collect from visitors have built Ganvié up and undoubtedly improved the health and well-being of the villagers.

A number of other far less visited villages also populate the lake and have not yet acclimatized to the wealth of visiting tourists. These small settlements were far more pleasant to spend time in, with the villagers going about their every day business, provided you can keep your travel and photography habits respectful and quiet (many of the women do not like to be photographed).

Ganvié is sometimes described as the Venice of Africa which gives a very false impression. However, it is an interesting insight into an unusual life bred from personal safety several centuries ago. Don’t get your expectations too high for a truly cultural experience but enjoy Benin’s stilt villages as an African travel wonder.


The aerial photo (lead photo) is sourced from here.


jasperjugan said...

it hurts me to see some countries are havin a hard time cope up...

eunice said...

I have not heard of this place before, thanks for sharing Mark! This place is beautiful, no wonder it's also known as Venice of Africa.

Mark H said...

@jasper: I think Benin is doing OK. It is just such a small country in a volatile region.

@eunice: My pleasure. I'd get to Venice first before I targeted Ganvie. Venice is quite eye-opening, especially if you get out of the main square (which shares my name).

Jenny said...

Actually, it's places like these that people learn how to become productive and efficient coz of what they are going through.

Mark H said...

@jenny: Their efficiency impressed me. Every fishing net that was thrown scooped up lots of fish - the whole reed pens seemed to work superbly well.

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