This wasn’t at all what we expected. We chose to stop in Togo to service the bike and got stuck there for over 3 weeks for the Nigerian visa, so had less than 3 days left to see what we could from Benin. We created quite a sensation when we showed up at the border, where Togolese and Beninese crowds cross over on foot and where street-side stalls with brochettes and fried yam are catered for by Nigerian refugees arrived here at the end of the 90s. We already had a visa so we asked for a cheaper Laissez Passer that would allow us to transit the country. As there was no such thing, we took the custom officer’s advice and set off without, only to regret the decision 3 days later, when we had to negotiate the price down from 20000 CFA to the original 5000 CFA. Gas is 540 CFA/l and roads are in poorer condition. We stopped over for a fufu after the dusty resort of Grand Popo, and rolled cheerfully towards Ouidah.
The Scars of the Past
In the XVII-th century Benin was still split into several principalities, but eventually one chief prevailed and started in Dahomey (present day Abomey) a bloody dynasty of ruthless kings. Their leisure consisted in frequent invasions of the neighboring Yorubas in Nigeria and building bank palaces rumored to owe their red color to the blood of defeated enemies. Also they eagerly cashed in the gold from the very lucrative slave trade based in Ouidah and Porto Novo and run by the Portuguese, the French, the British and the Dutch. Between 1800 and 1900 over 10000 slaves were shipped by boat from the so dubbed Slave Coast to Brazil and the Caribbean, particularly Haiti. The slaves brought along a robust gastronomy, lively folklore and the voodoo tradition, which was formally recognized as religion only as recent as 1996.
It’s hard not to get emotional along the 4km that were the last walked by the slaves on their way to meet their destiny. Ouidah is today a sleepy resort with largely paved roads, but this lonely route lined with palm trees, fetishes and monuments was symbolically left untouched. The sandy piste passes by the monument of the Tree of Forgetfulness, the tree that once stood here was circled by the slaves to induce eternal oblivion upon their previous life in Africa and erase their home memories. At the end of the line we found ourselves in front of the Point of No Return, a monument that recalls the 1970’s Marxist regime rather than the emotional life of the African slaves. We gaze for minutes into the abyss of the horizon, beyond the forever blue that was once that last image on the retina of many people, before descending into the darkness of their implacable fate.
Not far from the Point of No Return we enjoy a lovely chat with a bunch of youngsters who sell some meaty and fragrant coconuts. We choose to roll towards Cotonou on the beautiful Route des Peches. 42 of sandy piste, and the knubblies make the difference. Barely ten fishing villages are quietly lining one of the most romantic routes we drove on in Africa. Traditional reed huts, old boats carved from a whole tree trunk, we ride alone while digesting the heavy emotions from earlier. In the magically warm and long light of the sunset, the clouds of sand our Tenere leaves behind are shimmering like gold.
We find drinking water at some generous shy fishermen and later we look for a camping spot in the beach. We end up near the compound of a local chief, a very well spoken and dressed man, who welcomes us happily. We stay up late chatting life and food and in the background the capital lights up the night. In the morning we brew black Sri Lankan tea with milk for everybody, and they feed us the best coconuts ever. On the beach the fishermen have already formed a line and are sweating over the full nets.
Cotonou makes quite an impression on us: solid infrastructure, modern office buildings, a maze of a market, good street food but an insane traffic and kamikaze zemi-johns (motorcycle taxis) zooming from very direction. Benin was dubbed The West African Latin Quarter because of its people: loud, energetic and very chatty, always glad to start an intellectual or political debate.
We were meant to be heading for Abomey, in the heart of the Fon country. The 140 km of bad potholed tarmac proved a boring ride, along which we met just dilapidated trucks with hysterical drivers. This was the main road, so we decided to drop the idea of going back to Cotonou the next day on a secondary road, but we cringed at the thought of having to ride on this road not once, but twice. The historical capital of the bloody kingdom that shattered the peace over a huge chunk of Africa didn’t impress us as much. UNESCO has pumped some money to establish the Dahomey Trail, along which the former palaces are scattered. But the buildings are either abandoned to ruin or so neatly restored that they appear brand new, and that doesn’t help with the overall charm. The locals can’t be bothered to cater for the old sites but are eager to collect any money they can squeeze from the tourists. We forfeit the pricey museum ticket and head to the market, to browse the voodoo merchandise on sale.
Voodoo comes from the Fon and Ewe word vodun, which means hidden or mystery. The present set of beliefs are an amalgam of traditional and catholic ideas that formed in the Caribbean. Voodoo is a daily aspect of life in both Togo and Benin. The fetish market is like a voodoo pharmacy, where the wood dolls and dead animals’ parts (gri-gris) can be purchased at the indication of a juju man. The ceremonies usually revolve around the consultation of spirits of dead ancestors, who are offered the gift of certain aliments or domesticated animals. Unfortunately the voodoo religion has been harmed by the policy of the Marxist government that abandoned it to the exploit of Hollywood. We let you enjoy the pics of dead gri-gris and of an unfortunate but very much alive chameleon that un unscrupulous fellow would have liked to sell to us for less than 4 Euros.
In less than 24 hrs we were to roll out of Benin into the dreaded Nigeria we’d heard so much about, and nothing could have prepared us for what was to come.