Sunday Spotlight: Ouidah (Benin)
It seems suddenly I am writing a lot of posts on West Africa again! Oh well, this time I turn the spotlight to a little town on the coast of Benin. Benin is one of the most interesting countries in the region. There’s a fair bit to keep one occupied for a few days to a week if you base yourself in Cotonou and do a few days trips. You can go to Ganvie, Abomey and the capital Porto Novo easily and be back in time for dinner, but the most interesting day trip I found was one to Ouidah.
Ouidah has plenty to occupy you for a fullish half-day, it’s not much more than half an hour from Cotonou and I’d say it’s got enough charm if you felt like spending a night or two as well, with good beaches and calm atmosphere.
The remnants of colonialism are still plainly visible in Ouidah, with many old colonial buildings, albeit faded ones, still standing, some with wooden shutters which wouldn’t be out of place in a small village in southern France.
I met a German backpacker at my guesthouse in Cotonou and we took a ‘bush taxi’ (common form of transport in West Africa – a small van with as many people as possible shoved in) to Ouidah. At are arrival we met a couple of chaps with motorbikes who we negotiated with to take us around to the sights of Ouidah.
We started with an old fort that is now a museum. The Museum of History in Ouidah shows you a glimpse of the dark history of the place. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, this is where nearly a million people were taken from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas to live and die as slaves. You can learn more about it all at the museum (as well as look across the town a bit), before going down to the coast.
Our drivers took us there on their motorbikes (motos) past voodoo sculptures and past a beautiful lake. This road is known as the ‘Route des Esclaves’ – the Road of the Slaves. After being locked up in Ouidah for perhaps months, they then had to walk a number of kilometres exhausted, malnourished and traumatised, to the ocean where boats waited for them. Thousands died from disease and malnutrition in the forts in Ouidah, thousands more on the walk down this road. All in all, it’s a pretty sombre place visit. There is a rather moving monument on the beach to all who walked the ‘Route des Esclaves’.
Back in town, there are a couple more things worth seeing. The Temple of the Pythons is, I’m sure, still disappointing visitors today. It’s not much of a temple, we got a little bit of information about voodoo from the attendants, and then we had the opportunity to hold an extremely pacified python and pose for a photo. I passed on this (and I admit regretting that) but my friend paid for the privilege. Honestly, I just felt sorry for the poor pythons.
Also in town is the rather beautiful Basilica of Ouidah, worth a photo or two at least, and that pretty much summarises what we saw in Ouidah. The last thing to do was to pay our moto drivers. Mine had been quiet and friendly, the sort of driver whether it be moto, tuk tuk or taxi, I prefer to have. My friend however had a driver who kept trying to renegotiate the price throughout the day and had given him a lot of trouble.
One got a tip – yes it was mine, the other was paid just the agreed price. As we walked about town taking photos, he followed us demanding more money. We went into the Temple of Pythons and when we left he was still there, waiting for us, it wasn’t until we were in the bush taxi home that we felt we’d shaken him!
Nevertheless, Ouidah proved a very interesting, picturesque and slightly confronting day trip. And I think sometimes travel should be confronting, don’t you? Hence you learn more about the world and yourself. May the journey never end!