The Capital of Voudou, the Route of Slaves, and One Difficult Night

One of the many things that made me bid Lome high was the fact that this region is the home of Voudou. (Vodun, Voudoun, however you like to spell it.  But not voodoo or hoodoo.  It’s a serious religion, let’s have some respect.)  However, the most famous religious place, the city to which people make pilgrimages, is Ouidah, which is next door in Benin.  We had wanted to go since getting here, but with the Teacher’s work schedule (the school doesn’t believe in holidays, it seems) and my own, it was difficult to set aside a day.  Until this past weekend–she’s on Spring Break, and it’s a three-day weekend at the Embassy.  We planned everything out–we looked up how long the drive was, I reserved us a room at one of the beach resorts, and we even had another friend who was coming with us.  We also planned to see many of the slavery memorials, to get a better understanding of that portion of our own history.

We left at 7:30, and despite getting slightly lost in Lome (yes, I still have trouble getting around this city), we were well on our way to the Benin border shortly.  We picked up our friend (who was staying slightly outside of town), and kept going.

The first thing of note: We realized about 1/2 an hour into the trip that our A/C was busted.  This is doubly bad–not only would our car be way too hot, we’d have to roll down the windows for as much of the trip as we could.  However, whenever going slow or stopped in a market type area (or anywhere on the road), we need the windows up for protection!  We adjusted, but it was difficult.  (It also meant that I didn’t have the normal tinted-window UV protection for my left arm, which has meant a deep and long-lasting sunburn!)

Next: The Togo-Benin border was smooth and easy!  I’d heard horror stories about being held up for hours, waiting for paperwork to “process”, as guards basically made you wait to pressure you for a bribe.  Nothing remotely like that in our case!  It did take some time for the guards to hand-write all the necessary information, but everyone was very polite and helpful, on both sides of the border.  Kudos to the two customs agencies!  (I am aware that I probably received somewhat special treatment, with my black passports and dip plates on my car.  However, it was other diplomats who had warned me about bribes and such.)

We only had one experience with someone asking us for a bribe the whole way, and that was at a checkpoint in Benin.  Honestly, our car could have easily just demolished the checkpoint (a thin branch pulled across the road), but we talked to the gendarme as he explained how hot it was outside and how hard it was to work in those conditions.  I patiently explained that I know it’s hot, but I couldn’t help him with that.  He looked at me for a moment, and then just let us go by.  (He was probably annoyed as all hell by me, but I’ve found that strategic “cluelessness” can be really useful at times.)

It was basically a straight shot all the way to Ouidah.  However, NOTHING in Ouidah could be described that way.  You need a guide to get anywhere–even directions will just leave you completely lost.  And, of course, every single one of those guides costs money.  If you go, just suck it up and hire one.  Preferably one who knows where they are going and can claim to be official (though it might cost you more).

Our first stop was “The Temple of Pythons.”  This was really the whole reason I’d wanted to come in the first place.  The name is a bit misleading, though.  It’s not a big or ornate structure, like the Cathedral across the street.

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This is the Cathedral. This is what I think of when I hear “temple” or “cathedral”. I need to learn better.

It was more of a garden, with a few places to pray and a big wall around it.  In the middle, was an unassuming hut. But, inside that hut, were the gods of the region.

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The stars of the Temple!

And I mean that literally–snakes are revered as gods in this city.  They are also completely docile and sweet.  They seem to love being held, or at least tolerate it as the price for a home without worries.

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There was also a “God of Iron,” which I’d also seen at the Fetish Market in Lome. This one specifically guards against accidents.

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And that was all.  It’s small, but I felt the religious sentiment there, and the snakes were very sweet.  From here, we started on the “Route of Slaves”.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, Ouidah had been one of the most important slave ports in African, and many kings made fortunes selling people to white slavers.  They were sold for trinkets, for lanterns, for guns, and for anything else they couldn’t make at home.  The Beninese government has decided that this history must be preserved, and I’m grateful for that.  At the same time, it was pretty heavy to see, especially after the simple serenity of the pythons.

Almost everything that follows came from the oral history given to us by the guide (though filtered through my memory and my translation skills, which should be faulted before the guide).  The man claimed to be an official guide; he also had a distinct problem with his leg; it was either malformed or had been badly hurt in some kind of accident.  He led us on the back of a motorbike, and we paid both him and the moto driver in the end.  I acted as interpreter for the whole group, as the only French speaker among us.

We started at “The Place of a Thousand Sorrows.”  This was the main auction site.

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It’s also directly in front of the preserved house of a Portuguese-Brazilian who served as viceroy of Ouidah and founded a dynasty of kings.  This family is still important, including a former President of Dahomey (now Benin), a Catholic  Bishop, and the current First Lady of Benin.  This man, Francisco Felix de Sousa, rose to fame as a slave merchant, even pushing to continue it clandestinely after the British had decided to shut it down.

There’s a reason, then, that his house needed cannons:

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We then saw his tomb, which is still preserved in a neutral way, which is a little disconcerting for a man who had built his wealth on a crime against humanity.

From here, we went on to see the other monuments.  In particular, there were a series of statues that led up to the “slave house.”

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The Pelican represents “the whites,” and the fish the Africans–basically, the whitest came and just took as many Africans without any consequences.

We saw another one (without a picture) of a wolf eating another dog, representing the Africans who sold off other Africans.  We saw a space dedicated to where the slaves were held, bound in utter darkness, after auction but before being transferred to the ships.  There were two statues, with hands bound behind their backs and bits in their mouths to prevent screaming, which demonstrated what it was like inside.  The people were packed so tightly, many died; their corpses were taken to the communal grave pit.  More depressingly, many in that room prayed for death, considering it better than the alternatives.  We saw the monument to the cemetery, which included the phrase (as I recall) “La Mort est la Liberte”.  Literally, death is freedom.

From the “black house”, it was on to two different trees.  The first was the “Tree of Forgetting.”  All slaves were made to walk around this tree, 9 times for men, 7 for women, in order to completely forget their past lives and lose all will to rebel.    (I’m pretty sure that a bit of Voudou was used as part of this.)  The other was the Tree of Return, where  a woman had been sacrificed in order to empower it to be an anchor to the souls of the slaves shipped across the ocean.  Slaves would walk around this one three times, in order to ensure that when they died in the New World, their soul at least would come back to their ancestral land.

Lastly, there was the “Point of No Return,” a beautiful beach where, 200 years ago, the little rowboats would come to transfer the slaves to the over-packed ships.

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To minimize the complete depression of the place, the Beninese government is also creating the “Point of Return,” a monument to all the members of the diaspora who have come to find their roots and connect with their ancestral soil, but it’s not finished yet.

At this point, we were all pretty emotionally drained and looking for something to cheer us up.  Of course, there were vendors along the road, and the Teacher and I found a small souvenir which wouldn’t depress us further.  From there, the guides took us to a small restaurant for lunch.  Despite looking sketchy and unsanitary, it had some quite delicious chicken and we enjoyed a leisurely meal with lots of liquid to bring us back to the modern day.

From there, we went to the Ouidah Museum, which is in the original Portuguese fort.  (Ouidah, unlike the rest of Benin, was originally a Portuguese colony, and they didn’t relinquish their official claim until Portuguese democratization in the 1975.  There, we were able to see more of the official history given to us by our guide.  Pictures of kings, descriptions of the town, and even the old chapel built by the early missionaries gave us the visuals to go with some of his stories.

From here, it was getting late, and it was time to head to the resort we had booked for the night.  I had done the reservations on the resort’s web page; two rooms with A/C, one for me and the Teacher, one for our friend.  The beach resort was a straight shot on the main highway back to Togo–nothing could be easier.  I’d even received a phone call at the museum asking me to reconfirm my reservation!

And then we got there.  My friend’s reservation had apparently just disappeared.  Mine had somehow gone from a “room with AC” to a “VIP room,” at double the price.  We had a decision to make–risk trying to get back to Lome that night (cancelling the room) or try to make it work with all of us in one room and ask for some money back later?    We were really excited about the beach, and they said they’d be able to put another bed in the room, and so we accepted.

By bed, they met mats.  They could put mats in the room.  (They seemed dumbfounded that I’d even ask about the possibility of putting a whole extra BED in a room.)

But, ok…we could make this work.  We took some showers to cool down from the heat (again, no AC in the car), and figured out what we were going to do.  It was going to be dark soon, which was good because both Teacher and I were BURNT.  (We’d brought sunscreen, but at no specific point had we expected to be outside for awhile.  However, the cumulative nature had been MORE than enough.)  We signed up for the dinner, and waited for the sun to be fully down before exploring.

Once it was dark, I walked out to the beach, and though I couldn’t see the waves (or much of anything–it was DARK), I could hear them, and it was wonderfully peaceful.  I was able to forget about the problems with the room for a second, and then…I looked up.  It was so dark on the beach, despite the resort behind me, that the stars would beautiful.  In that moment, all of my worries went away. I ran up to get the Teacher, and we spent several minutes just looking at the night sky.  From there, we went to the dinner, had some punch, and enjoyed the live Easter music.  (Very traditional singing and drums…it was nice.)

That moment made the whole resort experience worthwhile.  That moment, sitting at a table near the beach, with tropical music, and my wife, was so completely perfect that I will remember it forever.  It completely made up for the utterly lackluster dinner that followed and the crappy punch.

By the end, we were exhausted, and went back up to bed.  It was then that our suspicious about our room were confirmed–our AC did not work.  It blew out air, but it was no colder than the room itself (which was already much hotter than outside).  What followed was the opposite of that moment–I spent the entire night sweating and unable to sleep.  We even opened the screen-less windows (a real no-no in this part of Africa), just to get some slightly cooler air in.  I don’t know that I slept at all, and I spent the entire night mentally cursing the place and trying to marshal my French to explain the problems in the morning.

I got up with the sun, washed again, and walked to the beach.  There, I watched the waves, and even got my feet just barely in the surf. (You have to be a hella-good swimmer, like the locals, to actually go out into the ocean.  The current and waves are both strong enough to kill you.)  It did my mind good, and it calmed me dramatically.  I went to registration to lodge my complaint.

I ended up having to explain it twice, first to the lady who happened to be there and dutifully took it all down, and then to her boss.  Her boss was able to talk to the owner while we took our breakfast.  While dinner had been lackluster, breakfast was pretty divine.  (Well, after we sent back the first basket of bread due to it having ants.)  A perfectly done omelet with amazingly tasty peppers, tomatoes, and onions, soft bread with some kind of jam, and pineapple juice.  (Pineapples and pineapple juice can do more to make me happy than any other fruit on earth.)  After breakfast, I talked to the manager again, and he told me that the owner had agreed to a 50% reduction in the cost, back to the level it would have been if we had gotten the room I had actually reserved.  I agreed, and we left happy about the resolution.  (And the breakfast.)

From there, it was an easy drive back to Togo, with no hassles, no bribe attempts, and honestly no traffic.  We dropped our friend off at her hotel, got a little lost in Lome again (seriously, this is a difficult city to get around!), and came home and crashed.

Takeaways:

Ouidah is completely worth going to, if only for the whole “Route of the Slaves”. It’s powerful, and hard, but necessary for anyone from the US, especially Southerners.

However, don’t travel on Easter Weekend.  Every possible resort will be completely booked and you will get overlooked.

Snakes are awesome, and (much like cats) totally deserve our love and worship.

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