Enjoy a trip in a tiny and fascinating country facing the Gulf of Guinea.
January 10th is a very special day in Benin, a day to celebrate ancestral cults.
In particular all the Voodoo’s adepts meet in Ouidah and then convey in a long procession to the Door of No Return, some on foot while others by motorbike or “taxi-brousse”.
They are all dressed up in traditional costumes, white being the dominant colour. The Festival reaches its peak with the arrival of the Dagbo Houno, the chief “feticheur”. Dances, libations, masks and some official speeches are all part of the morning programme.
Touring in Benin, you will experience tribal villages and ways of living embedded with powerful cultural traditions.
This itinerary will take you from the littoral Cotonou to the Atakora Mountain in the north of the country.
You will discover the Tamberma and Somba tribes, who live and build spectacular adobe castles. You will learn about their social structure by listening to how their houses are organized.
Meet with Taneka people who live following strict cultural rules. The men’s life is punctuated by a long initiation rite.
In Benin, you will become accustomed to the world of masks. You will experience their social role and admire their artistic feature.
DAY 1: COTONOU, GULF OF GUINEA
Arrival in Cotonou and transfer to the hotel.
DAY 2: COTONOU
Our journey at the heart of magic starts with a visit of Cotonou, the vibrant capital of Benin.
The city of Cotonou is plunged into a constant traffic chaos caused by thousands of zemidjans (moto-taxis) wearing purple or yellow uniforms. As a consequence, the city follows the rhythm of the traffic lights pausing and restarting those zemidjans all over the city. Enjoy this show of a rare intensity!
Visit the Zinsou Foundation, the first private Beninese foundation exhibiting contemporary African art, which was created in June 2005. Started as a family initiative, the Zinsou Foundation is deeply involved in cultural and social activities.
We will meet a contemporary artist in his/her atelier and learn about new trends in the city.
DAY 3: VOODOO FESTIVAL
Every 10th of January is a national celebration day in Benin, honouring traditional religion and all cults associated with it. Ouidah in particular is where dozens of voodoo ceremonies are held, calling thousands of adepts, traditional chiefs and fetish priests.
Ouidah was conquered by the Dahomey army during the XVIII century to become one of the main slave ports. Today the town enjoys an Afro-Brazilian architecture, and the python temple faces the Catholic Cathedral. The laid back attitude of the locals blends in harmoniously with the thunder of the distant waves and the rhythm of the drums – a timeless atmosphere very well described by Bruce Chatwin in his book “The Vice-Roy of Ouidah”. On foot we visit the Python Temple and the Portuguese Fort, now a museum on the history of Ouidah and on the slave trade. We then end our city tour by following the “slave road” to the beach, the point of “no return” where slaves used to board ships.
As per the program of festivities, we will choose the best sites – the festival takes place in the entire region around Ouidah.
DAY 4: GHOSTS
Drive to Grand Popo. Tour in a small motorboat along the Mono river to discover tiny villages where the old way of extracting salt is still practiced. Our journey will lead us to a marvellous estuary, where the waters of the river and the ocean are meeting, giving birth to contrasting forces playing with each other… Crossing of the lagoons limited by small forests of mangroves… Along the coast the fishermen live in villages built out of branches of palm trees. In one of these villages we will attend to a Zangbeto ceremony. The Zangbeto mask is very tall and covered with coloured straw. It represents wild non-human spirits (the forces of nature and of the night that inhabited the Earth before human beings). The mask wearers belong to a secret society and keep their identity hidden as the non-initiated cannot know who they are. When Zangbeto comes out, it is a big important event for the village. Its performance guarantees protection against bad spirits and malicious people. The spinning movement of the mask symbolizes the spiritual cleaning of the village and Zangbeto also performs miracles to prove its powers.
Drive back to your hotel.
DAY 5: PORTO NOVO
Drive to Porto Novo, an old town where colonial architecture and colourful markets including a large traditional herbal market. A city tour of Porto Novo includes:
– The Musée Ethnographique de Porto Novo, an interesting museum that takes an intensive look into the past of Porto Novo’s kings. Displaying an interesting election selection of fetishes, old Yoruba toyal masks, costumes, and some musical instruments.
– King Toffa’s Royal Palace: This former residence of the King is now officially called Musee Honmé. This well maintained, rather simple, palace is a nice look into how African royalty really lived. 1883 was the year King Toffa signed the treaty with French, agreeing to hand over the country. The kingdom of Porto Novo was one of the longest lasting in Africa, lasting up until 1976.
– Da Silva museum celebrates Afro-Brazilian influence on the city, this fairly new museum offers a lot of variety. The museum grounds consist of a traditional house, a small library, an open-air cinema showing French films, and a hotel.
– The unique and perhaps most colourful building in West Africa is the 19th century Brazilian style church now converted into a mosque. A must-see!
DAY 6: CHIEFTANCY
In the morning we will visit the project of the Centre Songhai.
The future of Africa lies in its lands, its climate, and its agricultural work, which is so poorly appreciated in the continent today. The Songhai Center is trying to restore nobility to farm work that helps young people to face future challenges choosing to provide service in creating wealth for their families, their countries, and their continent, through a functional training based on knowledge, skills, and a value system. We will discover their philosophy as well as technologies and methods that aim to enhance local resources and improve production respecting the environment and the society.
Drive to Ketou the capital of an ancient and prestigious Yoruba Kingdom that still “rules” on a border region between Benin and Nigeria.
After the protocol we will be introduced in the royal palace and received by the Oba (King) Adedu Loye, 51st Alaketu, surrounded by his dignitaries. We will be able to ask to his majesty about the history of Ketou, one of the major kingdoms offspring of Ilé-Ife royalty, considered one of the greatest in Africa since XIII century.
DAY 7: DANCING MASKS
In the morning in a small village, we will attend to the Gelede masquerade.
These masks are part of the Gelede cult, which is dedicated to Mother Earth. The whole village celebrates to promote fertility of both the people and the soil. Each sculpted mask represents a different character, of which only the initiates know the true nature and secrets and the symbolic meanings. The masks are brightly painted and move like puppets as they relate myths and moral stories using mime. It is both educational and humorous. The delighted crowds laugh and clap their hands as they watch in appreciation. It is a fascinating mix of street and magical theatre.
Dassa is the seat of an ancient kingdom founded by Olofin in 1385 and in town it is still possible to discover sites witnessing the passage of this long-lasting dynasty. A walk through the hills will take us to a sacred place where kings used to be buried – it is still protected today by several Voodoos’ statues and shrines.
Later in the afternoon we attend the Egun masks. They represent the spirits of the deceased and according to the local population they “are” the deceased.
The men wearing the masks representing Egun are initiates of the cult. Dressed in brightly multicoloured clothing they emerge from the forest and form a procession through the village streets, leaping towards any foolish spectator who dares to get too close. You don’t want the Egun to touch you because if he does; there is danger of death, so watch out! Some people touched by the Egun immediately collapse into a heap on the ground , they are carried in the fetish convent but fortunately and they recover quickly..
On arrival the masks perform a kind of bull fight charging the crowd, which is designed to create fear and respect.
DAY 8: THE MOUNTAIN OF “THE FETISH PRIESTS
Early morning, transfer Northwards. Visit of the Savalou shrine, an important place for animist pilgrims.
Later an easy walk to discover remote Taneka villages located on a mountain with the same name. The villages are composed of round huts covered with a conical grass roofs protected at the top by a terra cotta pot. The upper part of the village is inhabited by the young initiated and by the fetish priests who only cover themselves with a goat skin and always carry a long pipe. This ethnic group has been living on an archaeological site for centuries, in fact it looks as if the first inhabitants (coming from the neighbour Togo) moved to the mountain during the IX century. Since then, other populations have joined to so form a kind of melting-pot where despite the fact that each group has kept its own cults and initiation rites, they defined common religious and political institutions.
As we wander around, along alleys bordered by series of smooth stones, we may come across half naked men. The Taneka people believe that in order to “become” a man, it is necessary to combine time, patience and a lot of… blood from sacrificed animals. Initiation is actually a lifetime process in the sense that life itself becomes a rite of passage. As a consequence, life should not be considered conditioned by a “before” and an “after” but rather as following a continuous path.
We continue our drive to Natitingou
DAY 9: ADOBE CASTLES
A bit further to West driving close to the Togo border, we will meet with the Betammaribe (alias Somba) who live in the natural environment of the Atakora Mountains. For self-defense they build unique clay castles however, unlike their neighbours, they follow a series of very suggestive initiatory rites. Young men between 18 and 20 years of age have their bellies scarified with delicate and complex geometrical patterns, deeply convinced that those scars are the only way to become “real” men. We will meet some of those young men to hear from them what they recall of their initiation. Girls also go through a scarification rite but in their case scars are made on the belly and on the back at the age of 20-22. If a child is conceived before this initiation, scarification is carried out at the beginning of the pregnancy because the lack of scars could become harmful in the delivery process. All these initiatory rites form a cycle that starts during the weaning period (when the child’s face gets scarified) and whose completion symbolises the official birth as a member of the group. It is the infinite number of the very thin scars on their faces that forever reminds people they are Betammaribe.
Drive back to Natitingou.
DAY 10: DRIVE TO SOUTH
Long day drive to Abomey. On the way we will look for a Fulani camp. The Fulani are mainly shepherds. The men move around with their herds while the women take care of the camp as well as milk the cows and produce the butter to be sold at the market.
The Fulani are famous for their beauty. In fact “Fulani” means “beauty”: Beautiful tattoos on their face send messages to the people who understand the language; beautiful slender bodies looking at their herds stand as a dot on the horizon; beautiful eyes able to contain so many landscapes contemplated during their migrations to find grazing. Their beauty is proportional to their slowness. Mysterious figures: they seem to be slower than anybody else and at the same time they move more than anybody else. Here is the mystery of a people who learnt how to tame time and space, history and geography.
DAY 11: ROYAL PALACES
We visit the Royal Palace whose walls are decorated with the symbols of the former kings of the Dahomey Kingdom. The Palace hosts a Museum and a temple built with a mixture of clay, gold dust and human blood. The Kingdom of Dahomey maintained a permanent state of war in order for kings to capture prisoners and sell them as slaves. The royal army also included a female troop famous for its boldness and aggressive fighting spirit. Historians like to emphasize the “secular” aspect of the king’s rule however even though the king was considered neither a god nor a priest, on special occasions many human sacrifices were performed on the kings’ graves. The power was exercised in a rational way, easy to understand also for a European; proof is the fact that kings of France and of the Dahomey interchanged their turns as diplomatic representatives at the end of the XVIII century.
Drive to Cotonou
DAY 12: ON STILTS
A few kilometres north of Cotonou we cross Lake Nokwe with a motorized boat and reach Ganvie, the largest and most beautiful African village on stilts. The approximately 25,000 inhabitants of the Tofinou ethnic group build their huts on teak stilts and cover the roofs with a thick layer of leaves. Fishing is their main activity. The village has managed to preserve its traditions and environment despite the long-lasting human presence in a closed setting; and the lake is not over-fished. Life unfolds each day around the canoes that men, women and children guide with ease using brightly colored poles. It is with these canoes that men fish, women deliver goods to the market and children go to school and play.
Day-use rooms will be available for a last shower before being transferred to the airport.