Oddly enough, I visited not one, but two villages on stilts in 2011, one in Benin and one in Ghana. My experiences were vastly different and both affected me deeply.
My first visit to a village on stilts was in Benin. I imagine that each person to visit Ganvié comes away with different impressions, however, one thing that seems to be constant is the view that words and photos are not sufficient, Ganvié has to be experienced to be understood.
Ganvié is a lake village in Benin, in Lake Nokoué. It has a population of around 20,000 people, and is the largest lake village in Africa. This village is sometimes called the Venice of Africa because, like the Venice in Italy, Ganvié was formed out of necessity.
In the seventeenth century the Tofinu people established the village on the lake to seek refuge from the Dahomey tribe, one of the tribes that was very much involved in slave trading. The Dahomey religion forbade their warriors from fighting on water, therefore the lagoon was a safe haven for other tribes.
Although Ganvié is a very popular stop for tourists, there was no official visitors’ center. We paid for our trip to the village and gingerly entered a pirogue along with the other people who were making their way back and forth between the lake village and the mainland. It was a Sunday morning, so many were dressed for Church.
The ride over to the village was long and peaceful. The boat captain rowed for a while and then put up the sail so we floated gently across the lake for about an hour. We were passed by many people on the lake, young and old rowing themselves to their destinations. They seemed bemused by our presence just as we were curious about them.
The lake was divided into farming plots which were distributed to villagers by the chief. Each plot was enclosed by reeds. The fish would hatch eggs within the reeds and when they developed, they would belong to that farm owner who would catch and sell his crop.
When we arrived at the village we found a thriving community with neatly kept houses, shops, school, churches and a doctor’s office. The houses were organised in rows and the waterways were like roads that run through any neighbourhood in a land based village. Apparently the waterways had names, and our guide pointed out a path that was called Lover’s Lane. He claimed that young people gathered there at 6 pm to meet and court.
There was a solar powered generator and a facility for fresh water collection. The houses were colourful and maintained with obvious pride. The only means for moving from one building to the next was by boat. Children as young as 5 were able to pilot a boat on their own.
We passed two spots that appeared to be designated for the market. Women sat in their boats which were more or less stationary. The boats were filled with produce and they waited as customers rowed over to them to make their selections and purchases.
Our presence in the village was largely ignored, but we left Ganvié changed, feeling as if we had been allowed a peak into an alternate universe.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I visited two villages on stilts in 2011. The second was in Ghana, and I will discuss this in my next post. It was a completely different experience, perhaps (though hopefully not) representative of the future of Ganvié.