We based ourselver in Cotonou and made several excursions from there. We were running far behind our original schedule and had thus resolved to hurry through Benin, briefly visiting the main tourist sites. Naturally, our initial plans for a whirlwind tour of 3 days proved to be woefully optimistic, but we didn't regret the week we spend in and around Cotonou. Aesthetically the city is a catastrophe. The whole place looks like a building site which has been abandoned half way through. The skyline is irregular, large ugly stacks are scattered around among the predominant low, concrete buildings. Many buildings are unpainted and the bare concrete has become discoloured and ugly through exposure to the extremes of this tropical climate. Huge piles of sand and gravel obstruct pavements on the main boulevards. Few of the roads are paved and huge pools permanently occupy certain crossroads where the road has long been washed away. Countless small motorbikes and massive trucks throng the streets, spewing clouds of dust and smoke into the air. Nevertheless it is a pleasant and friendly city. Good cheap food is easy to find, the pavement cafes are pleasant places to drink beer and both police roadblocks and aggressive hustlers are mercifully rare.
The whole coastal area of Benin is riddled with lagoons which contain a number of stilt villages. These villages are home to fishing people and are situated on land which is seasonally flooded and is completely submerged for several months of the year. The inhabitants choose to live in these places because they allow them to live much closer to their fishing grounds and because they formerly provided protection against the slave-raiding armies from the Dahomey empire to the North who were forbidden to launch attacks over water. We visited the stilt village of Aguegue, 12 km across the lagoon from Benin's political capital Port Novo. To get there, we rented a canoe and two oarsmen in Port Novo for $10. One of the rowers stood at the back, polling us along the bottom, while the other sat at the front with a short oar topped by a single heart-shaped blade, alternatively used on either side of the boat. The 12 km trip took about 2 hours, during which we passed through an amazing waterborne society. A large area of the lagoon was divided into large rectangular plots by straight rows of bushes planted tightly together, their tops emerging a couple of feet above the waterline. Beneath the water, their roots and branches grow so close together that fish can'not pass through them. Our rowers informed us that these enclosed plots are used for raising captive fish which are harvested every year or so. These watery fields are interspersed with a system of watery highways through which a large number of small boats constantly travel. People are everywhere, some working in the fields, mending holes in the bushes, collecting fish into their boats or bathing themselves in the water. Others are travelling with fish to the town, or with other supplies towards the villages. Still others sleep, lying in their boats which float gently on the tranquil waters. Here and there wooden huts have been built on stilts above the lagoon and these provide a focus for local people who gather their boats about them and use them to rest and cook food in while out on the water.
The village itself was mostly on dry land when we saw it, although the main transport arteries were channels of water, and pirogues were the only way of getting between the different parts of the village. There were several hundred buildings, most made of thin wooden sticks, although there were also 3 or 4 concrete buildings. All of them were built on stilts, their floors raised about 3 feet off the ground. The inhabitants sat on their porches, lay under their houses in shelter from the sun or rowed about in pirogues. Outside the small concrete church, a funeral was underway with the customary drummers, dancers and fine, colourful outfits. We stopped at the police-station, a tiny concrete hut, for the oarsman to deliver a letter. The policeman, a native of Cotonou, seemed very unhappy with his current posting. Within one minute of our meeting, he had poured out his tales of woe to us. He had previously been posted to Cotonou port, the most cosmopolitan place imagineable and, presumably, a pretty good place to get 'presents'. Now he found himself in this isolated backwater among these uncultured savages whom he considered to be thoroughly useless and lazy on account of the fact that they grew no food, merely fished, and spent much time sleeping in their boats. His isolation meant that he found it difficult to get food, the 2 hour trip to Port Novo was exhausting and, worst of all, nobody came to visit him.
Next we visited Ouidah, once a major slave port for the Dahomey empire, today mainly renowned for its voodoo shrines. The city's central square counterposes the two major religious forces. On one side, the catholic basilica towers over the town, on the other stands the much smaller, but vastly more popular with tourists, python temple. This temple houses several shrines for offerings to the 'snake-god' Dagbe, but, most entertainingly, it has a small circular building full of pythons. The temple's custodians are well versed in the arcane art of extracting cash from tourists. $1.50 has to be paid to gain entry, and if one wants to take phbots with the snakes, an extra, negotiable fee must be paid. The custodian's strategy in negotiating this fee was genius. As soon as he learned that we had a camera, he went to the python room, took a large snake out and, ignoring Deirdre's protests, strung it around her neck. Instantly her whole body went completely rigid, her neck sought refuge in her shoulders, her eyes opened wide and took on a glazed appearance, her mouth fell wide open but no sound came out save for a strangled gasp which meant "take it off!". Leaving her in this state, the custodian turned to me and began the negotiations. He wanted $10 for a photo but I refused to budge over 50 cents. This standoff was obviously not to Deirdre's liking and, had I not appreciated her toughness, I would have been tempted to give in and take the photo, releasing her from her frozen terror which was not helped by the snake starting to move, squirming across her bare shoulders. Eventually the custodian realised that I was a bastard and gave in, so we managed to capture a pose of Deirdre trying to smile with the snake. The deranged grin did rather a poor job of masking her terror.
Our final excursion in Benin took us to Abomey, the pre-colonial capital of the powerful Dahomey empire, some 100 km north of the coast. The town, today a calm and pleasant backwater, housed the palaces of the Dahomey kings. Each of the 12 kings built his own palace adjoining that of his predecessors. The complex covers a large area since each palace had several buildings and courtyards. However, the French destroyed all but 2 of the palaces so most of the area has today reverted to wild bush, from which a few sections of mud-brick wall protrude. The 2 remaining palaces are currently being refurbished and are regaining their former splendour. The buildings are mostly long, low and rectangular with sloping rooves. They are made in mudbrick, decorated with brightly painted bas-relief sculptures of many of the kings' symbols. The only concrete building in the complex is a small whitewashed building built as an administrative office by the French after their defeat of Dahomey in 1892. It is situated slap-bang in the middle of the last king's palace, a humiliating symbol of French conquest.
Several of the buildings today serve as museums, housing many historical relics of the Dahomey kings. The kings' authority was derived from various sacred objects: banners, umbrellas, stools, thrones and staffs. Each king had their own particular symbols which were used to decorate their sacred objects. Bees, birds and other symbols from nature predominate on the tapestries and carvings from the early monarchs. As the kingdom became larger and more powerful it also became more despotic and relied increasingly upon trading slaves for guns. This change is reflected in the king's choices of symbols. Decapitated heads became favourite decorative motifs in the taperstries of the early 19th century monarch, Ghezzo. His tyrannical rule was based on a well armed, professional army and large scale sacrifices of slaves to appease the gods. His throne which rests on 4 human skulls, gives one an idea of the type of impression that he wanted to create. However, despite their undoubted military ability, the Dahomey kingdom did not have a social organisation permitting them to wage war on the large scale that the Europeans could and they were unable to resist the large French expeditionary force of the 1890's