#20 – Learning about Benin’s Voodoo and slave trade
Between the cotton fields and the majestic mountains, suddenly appeared traditional houses with an unique shape, made from clay, straw and wooden sticks. A woman guided me through one of these so called tata compounds. From the kitchen we enter the bathroom on the roof, where clay surfaces monopolize the area. A rounded deck with a small hole is a sleeping room, and the cute towers have three chambers to store rice, grain and other products.
“They led me to the Benin border, ask for my passport, stamp me out and transfer me across the border without giving my drone”, my thought were like when I arrived at the gendarmerie. But suddenly a soldier with a black box in his hands shows up. He opened the box and revealed my drone. They kept true to their word and gave me back my drone. To be sure I wouldn’t use it anyway, they drove me to the border and handed it there.
With so much excitement in this day, I forgot the time, was short on water and food, and didn’t realize I still had to cycle for an hour in the dark to reach my aimed destination. But I quit cycling as soon as I passed the first village in the dark, where I could sleep at a closed hospital and where an evangelist priest cooked rice with sugar for me.
Out of food and water, and without breakfast I started my day. Normally, the roads are loaded with small shops to buy either of them. But not this time. I faced a mountain ridge, which would be difficult enough in normal conditions. And yes, at the top there was a cafe with some food.
For the next 30 km I cycled over steep hills, through the gorgeous steppes landscape, towards a big city. But the small shops remained out of sight. The bad eating rhythm left me a bit confused, to which I decide to stop in the city in search of an auberge. Beside, I had to draw out my short term future plans for Benin and after.
Everywhere I eat on the road, kids surround me and inspect every movement I make, like today. But it can also be useful. One of the yogurt drinks I bought was clearly expired, since it acted like a shaken bottle of coke which just opened. As the juice dripped over my hands, one kid immediately brought a new yogurt drink, and another a cup of water to clean my hands with.
As the rain season is coming to its end, the lively green landscape is seeping away. The calm and humid wind slowly changes to a dry and immersive hot blow.
Recently, two baffles of my airbed merged into one big tube, making sleeping on it unpleasant. A new one will be send to Lome in Togo, so in the meanwhile I have to find comfortable nights at cheap hotels.
When I go downhill I often spread one of my arms, and if the weight of my bags is in balance even two arms. The feeling of wind flowing through my fingers is very pleasant, and it gives color to my sense of the amazing freedom I enjoy.
Next to the road, a lot of wooden structures filled with 1L liquor bottles can be found. It really seems like a street bar, and it makes me thirsty as well. But unfortunately, the content of the bottles is not to sip away on a good day, but to keep motorised vehicles driving. The street bars are mini petrol stations.
Suddenly I saw a flat rock formation next to the road. Surrounded with lavendel, it made a good location for another night of wild camping. In the distant bushes I heard some noises, but as the night came closer they faded away.
I woke up with the fresh smell of lavender and the joyful sounds of birds. I took out my drone to capture the surrounding in the morning sun. A low cloud was covering a big part of the forest, where a few mountains ahead of me looked over it. Three small plums of smoke were drifting towards higher places, proving human activity.
I took a small gravel road to get more joy out of my riding. The few villages I passed didn’t have electricity, nor water to be sold. But they did have fresh water from the wells, which I start to drink more often to reduce my waste of plastic. I heard of other cyclists who only drink local water, unfiltered.
Africa, by times you’re a pain in the ass. I want to scream out all of my frustration, all the times that I misunderstand another person, and when another person does the same to me. All the annoying friendly honking, and when I throw my hand in the air of anger, you smile and wave back as a friend. Oh Africa, I can’t blame you, I can only blame myself. I still have to learn so much. And I’m glad that I came to you to do so.
Loose gravel beneath the rubber of my wheels continuously shift aside. The track constantly changes from a decent dry and flat mud road, to a difficult to ride sand path. All of my focus goes to find the best part of the road.
From the hilly and quite boring landscape, suddenly a few enourmous bold rocks were filling the horizon. Between these fabulous boulders I entered a small city, and saw tarmac for the first time of today.
One of the most pleasant parts of my day is getting cold water to clean myself with. As I pour the water on my head, it flows alongside the lower part of my body, cooling it down and washing away all sweat and dirt that clamped on my skin during the ride.
Everywhere I go, I take my bike with me. The bike is my house, it’s my clothes and it’s my connection to home. It takes good care of me while we’re on the road, so I take good care of the bike when we’re resting. Luckily, I can always take the bike inside bedrooms.
These days I’m hopping from one cheap hotel to the other. I don’t prefer to sleep in these places, but it has its good sides as well. Mostly, there is a power supply, which allows me to do some video editing on my laptop. A new airbed will be send to Togo tomorrow, now I just need to hope that it arrives on time before I fly to Sao Tome and Principe at the end of this month.
Never have I been so happy to see a jar of jam. It is very rare to find products to eat with bread, which don’t require a preparation first. With this in hand, I obtain the freedom to eat whenever I want, instead of being dependent on street food.
Today I reached Abomey, the heart of a former kingdom that lasted for 300 years and came to an end in 1900 due to French regime. Every one of the 12 kings that ruled over the years, had its own palace. In one of the palaces was a museum, which I went to visit, and showed all kind of attributes such as the thrones and scepters.
The official religion of the people here is Voodoo. When the king dies, a sacrifice of woman, slaves and animals was made to let the king travel in the afterlife. I’m going to see more of this interesting religion tomorrow, but first I’m going to camp at an auberge.
Visiting a voodoo drenched city sounds both interesting and scary. Soon I learned that voodoo is a religion, and here in Benin it has nothing to do with sticking needles in dolls, that’s only the Haitian way of practicing voodoo.
First thing on the agenda was to visit a fetish market, a place where ingredients such as monkey, hyena, snake, birds, elephants or many other animals can be bought. They use the ingredients for religious ceremonies to give fuel to the ancestors, or to make offers in exchange for knowledge about diseases.
Me and a guide continued to a voodoo church, which had the shape of a giant chameleon, one of the symbols of the religion. Afterwards we went to visit an underground village, which got discovered by accident only three decades ago.
At last we went to visit a voodoo priest, who showed some interesting rituals. People usually come to him to get cured from any kind of disease.
All in all, it was one of the greatest experiences of this trip, if not in my life. The richness of this traditional religion blew my mind. Not taken into account that I didn’t see a single tourist.
I left the voodoo infused city early, to start one of my last rides back to the coastline. I was happy to take a shorter route off the busy main road, leading me along tiny villages and scenic gravel paths.
At some point the tracks brought me to an abandoned rail road. The shallow grass that grew in- and outside the railway showed that it’s out of use for a while now. But the straight line that was formed in the landscape by the iron bars has been a perfect place to make a path along the wasted railway track.
Ganvie, the Venice of Africa. A beautiful village on stelts, build for an ugly reason. Back in the 18th century, when the cruelty of slave trade was at its top, people started to find safety on the water. A few kilometers away from the main land, they build wooden houses on stilts in the shallow water.
Nowadays, the village counts about 20.000 inhabitants. Everything is done by boat, since there is not a single street and houses are not connected. I went to do a small tour in the village. At some point, we passed a place that even had a tree in soil, with a few old man hiding from the sun sitting underneath it. Later, a chicken tried to find some food between the wooden planks above the water. And between the fishing kids, we saw both a mosque and a church. Yes, a village with a black history, but also with an unique beauty.
When the slightest sun was hitting my tent, I got burned out of my syntetic house on the roof of a tourist guide’s house. While packing my bike downstairs, I meet three of the guide’s friends. One of them emptied a shot of liquid. “It’s schnapps from the oil palm and is 80% strong” he learn me while he handed me a tiny bit of the local drink. Then they performed a song on their self made instruments.
For 20 km I followed a continuous stream of motor bikes, untill I reached the economic heart of the country called Cotonou. For a few days I’ll stay at an United States family to apply for the Gabon visa and to work on my new video!
This morning I said goodbye to my wonderful host family. They used to live in the U.S.A., but since a few years they decided to teach at international schools across the world. It really cheered me up having spend a few days with them.
It seemed that I had some troubles with swapping the air conditioned house for the hot roads along the coastline. The tarmac road suddenly stopped, forcing me to cycle through loose sand. The beach road led me to a few small fishing villages, where people were lined up and pulling huge fishing nets out of the water.
I finished at the “point of no return”, which is a monument of the tasteless slave trade. From this beach, many Africans entered the boats that exported them to America. On their way to the boats, they had to walk around the Tree of Forgetfulness, a humiliating metaphor of telling the slaves to forget their family, their past and everything they cared about.
As soon as I woke up, I saw coconut palms waving their large green leaves above me, while a repeated sounds of clattering ocean water was ruling another waking sense.
“These are the neckchains the slaves were wearing, and if they didn’t listen, they would tighten the steel around the neck”, Oscar the guide explained to me, while we were stumbling around in the former house of the Portuguese emperor, which now got transformed into a museum.
After cycling 40 km I arrived at another village at the beach. I could camp at a hotel, where there was even a swimming pool. It was a very relaxing place and under the same circumstances as I woke up, I now went to sleep. Fingers crossed that the coconuts stay were they are…
I order a spaghetti with one egg in the early morning. The sun is up already, letting me sweat and searching for a shadow. The heat is playing with my appetite, as I can’t finish the meal. Back on the bike, it sometimes feel as if the heat becomes more bearable due to a slight breeze.
I march through a group of man, they all look to me and point towards a desk with a man behind. I’m confused, but every passing second I read new information from the situation. On my left hand I see a sleeping officer, and on my right hand there is an officer who asks for my passport. After a few minutes he stamped my passport and let me into Togo.
Back in the country where they confiscated my drone, I started to realize that today would be my last real cycling day in West Africa. In Lome, the capital of Togo, I have to wait for a week to catch the plane to Sao Tome and Principe. I arrived at a hotel who gave me a room and a delicious rice meal with fresh tilapia, in exchange for some drone footage.