Benin: Some Quick Stills From the Road (and the Water)

I'm traveling in West Africa for a couple weeks, shooting video along the way. Thought I'd blog a few stills shot on the smaller of several cameras I brought, the Kodak Zi6, which I adore. No, I wasn't paid to say that, but here's an Amazon link. The Zi6 shoots surprisingly good HD video, with reasonably good sound for a "Flip-sized" device. Below, some stills from video footage I shot yesterday. More in this evolving set.

Voudun ceremony, Ouidah, Benin
Top to bottom: A voudun ceremony on the streets of Ouidah, men dressed in the regalia of the gods and ancestors.

Voudun fetish market, Calavi
A voudun fetish market in a village on the way to Ganvie -- you can see the carcasses of leopard and other wild cats and protected species in this particular market stall, along with python skins. Someone I know watched a vendor cut the head off a tabby kitten, gut it, and skin it here -- they use all kinds of animals in the rituals.

Gasoline, road from Cotonou to Ouidah, Benin.
Gasoline for sale on the roadside. I'm told a lot of this is smuggled in from Nigeria, just next door.



And those last three stills: en route to, and inside the village of Ganvie, which was founded in the 1700s as a refuge for people of the Tofinu ethnic group. They were trying to avoid being captured by the dominant, warring Dahomey ethnic group, who sold captives into the slave trade. The entire village is built on stilts, over the water. About 30,000 people live here now, I'm told. Everything is water, there's not really any land. Everyone moves around on the boats you see here, and even the market where women sell fish and cassava and herbs and fruits -- all of that is on boats, sitting in the water.

The women here traditionally wear intricate tattooing on their bodies, and some tattooing and scarification on their faces. As we were pulling up to the one shop/hotel/whatever that welcomes tourists, another boat pulled right up next to us, paddled by a beautiful tattooed/scarred young woman selling some kind of sweet starchy bread balls. I think the thing I'll remember most about Ganvie might be watching her flirt with and bat her eyelashes at our Beninois fixer/driver, who sat next to me on the boat.

There are a lot of really fascinating things about how daily life in this community works. One of these is how they farm fish. This lake, Lake Nokoué, is actually hard for things to grow in, so each family plants reeds to form "plots" in the water, to encourage fish to nest and breed there. The plots are carefully guarded and tended -- it's hard for me to imagine how they tell them apart, it's not like they have signs on them or something. If one family's plot is doing really well, they might sell the amount of fish beyond what they need to survive. If another family isn't doing well, they might work as laborers on a more successful family's plot.

I'll be traveling to a more remote, northern part of the country tomorrow, and maybe into Burkina Faso and Niger. I probably won't have good enough connectivity to blog much for the next 4-5 days. But I'll probably text some short stuff to Twitter, and I'll share more quick snaps soonest when back among the wired. And, eventually, video.


  1. I was scrolling past the article to look up a post further down the page and I was kind of shocked about how similar some of these photos look to shots I took from a vacation to Cambodia… the gasoline in plastic/glass bottles and the fishing village made me think that the post was about Cambodia before I stopped and read :P

  2. ” Someone I know watched a vendor cut the head off a tabby kitten, gut it, and skin it here”



    There. Sorry about that, but it had to be done.

  3. If one family’s plot is doing really well, they might sell the amount of fish beyond what they need to survive. If another family isn’t doing well, they might work as laborers on a more successful family’s plot.

    OMG! Capitalist pigdog running lackeys!

    But seriously,fascinating post.

  4. one of my most treasured possessions is an lp entitled ‘Ceremonial Music from Northern Dahomey’ (which became Benin). I have one or two others from this neck of the woods, and for some reason they sit head and shoulders above all the other African stuff I’ve found…

  5. Fish farming has always seemed like such a sensible way of growing food. Unfortunately, it has the reputation of being very polluting. I wonder what you could do to make it less so.

  6. I read in Saveur magazine just a couple days ago that catfish aquaculture is cleaner and actually produces better-tasting fish than those caught in the wild, since wild catfish eat gunk off the bottom, while if you keep a catfish pond clean they don’t pick that stuff up in their flesh.

  7. Xeni, I applaud you for your brave and exciting traveling! Your stories are fascinating and i am anxiously away your next travel submission.

    I will be writing a feature student travel destination spotlight on Africa in the upcoming week on the Student Travel Blog:

    Check it out if you get a chance!

  8. I do expat work in Lagos, Nigeria, which is close. Been told that Benin is quite nice. Just be careful of “Area boys” if such exist there..usually they are OK with foreigners, but they will require a “payment” for e.g. accessing the beach.
    @brendan: If you take your innoculations, drink your malaria pills, drink clean water, watch what you eat and keep to reasonable hours (and areas), you should be fine. If you are more adventurous.. well, let’s say that you have lots of options.

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