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
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
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.
The article 'The voodoo priests, kings and ghosts of Benin' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.