11 May 2018

Ganvié - Lake City of Africa

This is not a picture of a flood. This is Ganvié, in the Republic of Benin, the largest collection of lake dwellings in Africa. 20,000 people call Ganvié’s stilt supported dwellings home.  The city, in the middle of lake Nokoué, is not a recent construct however. 

Ganvié is up to five hundred years old. Sometimes called the Venice of Africa, like the Italian city its first inhabitants set up home there out of sheer necessity.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century the country was called Dahomey and was one of the most powerful states in West Africa. The major ethnic and linguistic group was the Fon and they had made a deal with the Portuguese. Rather than their own people being captured and sold in to slavery they made a contract with the Portuguese to hunt and sell tribes people from smaller ethnic groups.

The Fon warriors were numerous and powerful and there was little other groups of people could do to defend themselves against this onslaught. Then, someone among the Tofinu people came up with an idea. Their name is lost to history but one wise person realized that they could take advantage of the religious practices of their enemy.

The Fon were forbidden by their religion to advance upon and water bound settlement. Any groups of people who lived on water were, by the law of the Fon, safe. Lake Nokoué is simply immense. Ganvié was established as a means to escape being sold in to a lifetime’s slavery and shipped across the world in appalling conditions. No wonder its name means the collectivity of those who found peace at last. The alternative translation is the much more to the point We Survived.

Since then Ganvié has remained, forever physically changing by sheer dint of geography, but it has developed a complex and successful culture around life on the lake. Of course there are pockets of poverty, as there is everywhere else, but generally the people of Ganvié live ones of relative prosperity.

There are occasional small islands which pop up on the lake from time to time and these are immediately used to graze the few domesticated land animals that the Ganvians maintain. As you have probably already guessed the main diet is fish.  There is an intricate system of underwater corrals which are used to farm various species of fish and supply the city.

Most Ganvians use small boats to get around – as well they might – the lake city is a couple of miles from the nearest shoreline.  Even if you are just popping to a neighbor's for a gossip, it has to be done by pirogue (as boats are called).

If you can find a guide book to Benin it would probably not be likely to describe Ganvié as something of a tourist trap - though you do have to be as careful here as anywhere else on the planet about unscrupulous tour guides. There are just a few craft stores and a single hotel and restaurant to cater for tourists to Ganvié. Chez Raphael looks most welcoming! It also happens to be the focal point for Ganvié's wealthier young people, who meet up here in the evenings.

The doctor's is just a short boat ride from home - or the hotel for that matter!

There is also the promise of a certain soft drink, if you are feeling thirsty.

Family life is unusually business like on Ganvié. Most of the men are fishermen and they sell their catch (the produce of their makeshift but reliable fish farms) to their wives. It is then their responsibility to sell the fish on at local markets and to feed the children and their husbands. Although this accommodation has led to a stable society, the women do seem to have pulled the shortest straw as it were. Plus ca change.

A slow drift through this enterprising center of lake culture and you might well begin to wonder what actually holds most of the buildings together. There is a part of Ganvié where a floating market takes place but generally the town drifts off idly in various directions. Town planning is not something that means a lot to Ganvié’s inhabitants but on the one large piece of dry land there is a school – and there will soon be a cemetery.

The arrival of modern commodities such as tinned fool and plastics has also created a problem. When all waste was biodegradable, simply throwing it out of the window in to the water was fine. Now, the water is becoming more and more polluted with the detritus of modern life. If Ganvié is to thrive as a liveable place in the future this issue will have to be addressed.

This is not, to be honest, a tourist destination as yet though since 1996 it has been listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It will probably develop over the next few decades as Benin itself becomes more of a target for more adventurous travellers. As such there is not much to do in Ganvié except to soak in the strangeness of it just being there and the very different way of life of its people. For most who visit this unusual city on stilts, that is sufficient.