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Ganvié: City on a Lake

It was late afternoon. The sun had begun the gradual descent to the west, steadily sinking off the horizon. A breeze began to blow westward as we arrived in the middle of the lake to find a bustling town of over 30,000 residents who lived in bamboo huts built on stilts. Around the houses, we saw farm fish in pens made of reeds and palm fronds, as our rented boat drifted on the waterways to our hotel. A silence descends on the canoe as we all watched in wonder. A French couple chose to talk in whispers, as if they were afraid to puncture the silence. The other white tourist, a grizzly German with a red face cap, brought out a Nikon camera and clicked away, murmuring to himself. The other sound was the swish-splash of the guide’s paddles in the water. Although none of us tourists shared a common language––a French couple, a German, a Nigerian, a Senegalese, and a Beninese guide who spoke only the local language––at that moment, silence was our common language.  Silence of wonderment. That is the hold the settlement of Ganvié has over first timers.

Ganvié is one attraction tourists to Republic of Benin usually add to their itinerary. Most times, it is a last-minute addition, an afterthought.  If you have not heard about it before you arrived in Cotonou, you will most definitely hear it from other tourists. Whether planned or impulsive, a visit to the lake village of Ganvié invariably always ends as an exhilarating experience.

Lying in Lake Nokoué, Abomey-Calavi, near Cotonou, with an estimated population of 30,000, it is the largest of its kind in Africa. Sometimes, it is called the “Venice of Africa,” but it is not anywhere close to the glitzy Italian city. Ganvié is a bit of a throwback.

Formally submitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996, it sits several miles from the nearest shoreline of Abomey-Calavi, three hours as the crow flies from Cotonou, the bustling commercial capital of Benin.

A brisk boat rental business at the shore of the lake a 24-makes it possible for tourists to embark on a trip to the community at any time of the day.

The city in the middle of Lake Nokoué is not a recent construct. People who live in the 500-year-old settlement of Ganvié are referred to as “water men.”  They became aquatic dwellers not by choice, but out of necessity.

Historically, they lived on land until the 17th Century when the slave trade ravage of Africa reached its peak. At the time, the major ethnic people, the Fon, made a pact with Portuguese slave traders to become their major suppliers, a shrewd move calculated to forestall their community becoming the Portuguese’s prey.

The Fon subsequently hunted, captured and sold captives from smaller, weaker tribes. The Tofinus, one of the minor tribes, fled to the middle of a shallow, sacred lake to escape the slave-hunting Fon, who by their religious belief, were forbidden from raiding people dwelling on water. The lagoon became a sanctuary for the Tofinus, who were safe as long as they stayed away from dry land, and could in the face of the slavery scourge, proudly tell other ethnic groups: “We have survived”––the literal meaning of  “Ganvié” in Fon language.

Fast forward four hundred years later. While the threat of slavery has been consigned to the past, inhabitants of Ganvié have no plan to return to solid ground, having become accustomed to living on the water.

There is not much to do in Ganvié except to soak your senses in the quaint scenery around you.

Our rented canoe paddled around and we drifted about the lake, moving through invisible corridors to catch glimpses of how life is lived in the community.  We saw a few craft stores, a couple of hotels and a restaurant, Chez Raphael, which caters for tourists.  There, we stopped over for a few minutes. It appeared to be a rendezvous for the community’s young people, a place they meet up in the evenings.

Chez M, a hotel in the middle of the village––built on an island and hedged on all sides by stilt houses––was where we eventually disembarked. The view from its floor balcony was wonderful. There was plenty of beer. The food was pretty good, decent. The main diet was fish. I was not familiar with the menu, so I settled for a bowl of tapioca. And fish, of course.

The hotel has a handful of rooms, a courtyard and a two-storey gift shop/restaurant. The rooms were basic. Each had a fan, powered by generator. There was running water from a holding tank on the roof. All the wastes––garbage, sewer, anything else––were discharged into the water.

We found the staff very friendly. Thankfully, we also found people who understood us. Some of the staff were English and French-speaking. That solved the communication gap for all of us except Hans, the German.

Would you like a village tour? The suggestion came while we were idling, bereft of ideas of what next to do. The hotel contracted a local boat-poler to give us a first-hand tour of the village.

The community’s main industries are fishing and fish farming. Out of these, they have built a robust economy, whereby they are the major suppliers of fish to neighbouring towns, all the way to Cotonou.

We had a brief stop for a good view of their intricate system of underwater corrals used to farm various species of fish they supply to the city.

Our guide speaks French fluently and English like a broken gramophone. In Ganvié, family life is business-like.  According to him, fishermen sell their catch, mostly from their fish farms, to their wives at competitive price; the women in turn sell the bulk of the fish at the local markets and feed the family with the rest.

The community is assuredly self-sustainable on fishing so much so the residents hardly migrate to the shore to seek better opportunities. Villagers go ashore only to sell their fish and to purchase goods that cannot be cultivated on water that they resell on market days. Tourism has become another mainstay that affords owners of restaurants and souvenir shops opportunities of steady trickles of daily income.  Poverty is a fact of life in Ganvié, as it is everywhere else, but the people’s life is one of relative prosperity.

Each house is invariably an island, therefore, movement round the town, even to the next house, is only possible in pirogue, the long narrow canoe carved from a single tree trunk. To visit a next-door neighbor, you have to row there. The art of buying and selling happened in a floating market, which is a gathering of canoes laden with trader and their wares.

What holds most of the buildings together? The Frenchman wanted to know. Our guide babbled in French. They laughed, leaving me and the German out of the fun.

Ganvié naturally has only one-and-half complete patch of land, the guide interpreted.  He rowed the canoe to the site, which turned out to be the school. The half was an adjoining plot set aside for cemetery which continues to enlarge by the day as the community toils to import dry soil from remote shores.

Pointing out an island of grasses where a few goats grazed, our guide told us occasional small islands, which pop up on the lake from time to time, are immediately used to graze the few domesticated land animals in the community.  Residents take their goats there every morning, marooned them there for the rest of the day.

Ganvié homes––not particularly architecturally spectacular––are built with different characters. Most houses had terraces where inhabitants enjoy the view of the serene, shallow water and the activities around them.

A few households added sands––imported from land by canoe––to build a beachfront to their houses. A beach in the middle of a lake. The idea got Hans, who had guzzled several cans of beer––perhaps, one too many––belly-laughing. I tried to imagine the number of canoe trips made to the shore to be able to add metres of solid land out of a body of water.

A few residents had managed to develop plots for their domesticated animals.

Children, women, groups of individuals, they all moved around gracefully in their boats. They exuded pride as they navigated the water. They did not show any disposition towards abandoning their way of life for the cities on land. One fact easily comes to you: The people of Ganvié are content with their lifestyle.

I found drifting in a canoe in the evening in Ganvié a peaceful, magical, mystical and enjoyable experience.

Few hours later, as the sun sank on the horizon, we were heading to shore with Ganvié fading into the distance behind us. The French couple said they’d be back the next day. The German, too, said he wanted to spend the next day taking photos.

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