The voodoo priests, kings and ghosts of Benin
The village of Ganvie, dubbed the African Venice, floats on stilts in the middle of Benin’s Lake Nakoué. (Christopher Herwig/LPI)
Benin, a tiny ex-French colony sitting in a green corner of West Africa, is the original home of the much maligned religion, voodoo. As would seem appropriate for the home of a religion famed for its dolls and zombies (both of which are more Hollywood fantasy than Beninese reality), Benin is awash in magic, has kings sitting on thrones every which way you look, and gods and ghosts turning up left, right and centre.
Follow these suggestions for the best places in Benin to hang out with royalty – as well as a few village-building crocodiles.
When you venture to a city whose walls are said to be coated in human blood and where the king still has a throne made from the skulls of men, then you know you’re in for some unusual experiences. Abomey, formerlly known as Dahomey, was once one of the most powerful and brutal kingdoms in West Africa, and its vast royal complex still dominates the town. As the home of the most important royal family in Benin, this is clearly the place to hob-nob with royalty. There are actually two kings in Abomey; one of whom wears a silver face mask over his mouth and nose in order to prevent him accidentally swallowing the germs of mere mortals.
Ganvié, on Lake Nakoué, is a surreal sight even without the help of kings and crocodiles. When we say that Ganvié sits on Lake Nakoué, we do actually mean that. The village literally floats on stilts out in the middle of the lake waters and it looks as if some giant waterweeds took a load of steroids and mutated into a living village. But how did Ganvié come about? In the 18th Century, the rulers of Dahomey developed the annoying habit of capturing and enslaving all the members of smaller kingdoms. In order to prevent such a fate befalling his people, King Abodohoué turned himself into an egret and flew about the countryside until he found a suitably remote area to re-establish his kingdom. That place was the centre of Lake Nakoué, and in order to build the village out in the water King Abodohoué turned himself from a bird into a crocodile and persuaded the lake’s other crocodiles to help him rebuild his village.
Ouidah, a former slave trading port, is the spiritual centre of Benin and has numerous voodoo and royalty related sites. In the Sacred forest of Kpassé, it is possible to shake leaves with a king. Those nasty Dahomey folk were on another “kill everyone” rampage and honed in on the Xweda people. Their king, King Kpassé, was not too keen on having his head removed from his body, so he ran away and transformed himself into a tree. Today the tree/king still stands and pilgrims visit to have a chat with him.
It might not look like much today, but the small town of Allada kicks way above its weight in terms of regional importance. The town was established by the son of a princess who slept with a leopard and, perhaps not surprisingly with a background like this, it is a major voodoo centre and the home of one of the most important kings in Benin. It is often possible to arrange an audience with the current king; you must dress smartly, kiss the ground in-front of the throne and expect the unexpected – after all this king has the magical ability to turn into anything he chooses.
Whatever way you look at it, Benin is filled with majestic mystery.
Stuart Butler is co-author of Lonely Planet’s latest West Africa guide.