With around 25,000 residents Ganvié, also lovingly referred to as the ‘Venice of Africa’ (although that may be a slight exaggeration), is the largest stilted water settlement in Africa and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. I’m also of the opinion that it’s the highlight of a stay in Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou. Ganvié is only about 10 miles north of Cotonou and sits on Lake Nokoue; extending out several kilometers into the shallow waters. It’s a fascinating place to grab a glimpse in to the rare life of a water-dweller and to learn more about the circumstances that led so many people to seek refuge in such an isolated setting only accessible by small motorized boats and wooden canoes.
In a blend of heroic legend, saddening facts, and no small amount of creative license, our story, dear readers, begins . . .
In the 18th century, the King of Ganvié sought to protect his people, the Tofinu, from Fon slavers. The Fon’s leader, the King of Abomey, was in the lucrative business of kidnapping locals to sell as slaves to the Portuguese. To protect his people, the King of Ganvié was forced to order them to flee. And flee they did. For many a day and night they journeyed until they met the shores of Lake Nokoué and could go no further. Possibly footsore and definitely now trapped, the desperate King transformed himself into an egret (or possibly a hawk – it seems to depend on who is telling the story) and swooped across the lake until he spotted a habitable island holding promise of safety. However, the Tofinu were not a people who could simply swim to this new island with all their possessions. Now slightly annoyed, the King of Ganvié transformed yet again – only this time he became a crocodile – and carried his people across the lake on his own back. When the marauding Fon slavers reached the edge of Lake Nokoué, they were vastly disappointed, for they feared angry water spirits dwelt there and would not cross. Thus, the Tofinu were saved and have dwelled on the island ever since.
Modern Day Ganvié
Today Ganvié is the most popular tourist location in Benin and can be reached by motorized water taxi available from Cotonou or from Abomey-Calavi; a small city closer to Ganvié to the north of Cotonou. On your way across the lake you’ll find the modern-day Tofinu people fishing from small wooden canoes, some even fitted with sails made from a patchwork of material. The shallow waters allow the fisherman to stake out areas of the lake with nets. This makes for an interesting boat ride as you have to keep raising up the outboard motor to get over them whilst simultaneously avoiding fishermen hurling their fishing nets across the water with super-human balancing skills.
Once you arrive in Ganvié, you’ll navigate the vast network of narrow canals whilst locals go about their everyday life on the water, including punting their wooden pirogues (canoes) between the numerous watering holes or to the floating market. Electricity is provided by solar panels, generators and water pumping stations, and goods are brought to buy and sell at the floating market. The floating market is really nothing more than a place to park your canoe and sell your wares directly on board. As bundles of clothes or produce is loaded on to the market stalls (i.e. canoes), drop lower and lower in the water to the point where sinking seems the most inevitable outcome to a novice ‘punter’.
A few hours in Ganvié is undoubtedly a worthy introduction to what is an extremely unique and traditional lifestyle!
If you’re planning on heading to Ganvié from Cotonou then make your way over to Hotel Du Lac which is located on the eastern side of the Ancien Pont (bridge) on Rue 1885. The hotel’s reception desk will be happy to help you schedule and arrange a boat that leaves from their dock at the rear of the hotel. You can also pay reception directly so that you don’t end up fluffing around with cash on the boat.
The ride across the lake from the hotel to the village takes about an hour, and the total trip time is roughly 3-4 hours – so, make sure you’ve scheduled enough time. You’ll typically spend just over an hour bobbing around the village whilst the ‘captain’ (I use that term very loosely) gives an overview (in French only) of the village’s history and current residents.
Make sure you have some spare local currency with you as you’ll likely stop at a couple of floating souvenir shops and a small café for some refreshments. Obviously, they don’t accept credit cards!!