Ouidah, Benin is known for two things; the Benin-Atlantic Slave Trade and being the worldwide epicenter of Voodoo (not so much the dark magic and cinematically clichéd version of voodoo, but something much more closely aligned spiritually and culturally to Christianity and Islam) . I can therefore say with some conviction that a few days in this bustling city an hour outside of Cotonou is in equal parts fascinating and sobering. From slave route monuments and the door of no return to Voodoo temples and sacred forests filled with flying foxes, Ouidah is undoubtedly the place to come for a clearer understanding of Benin’s history and culture.
Ouidah Top Tips
Cadjehoun Airport, located in Benin’s commercial capital city Cotonou, is the country’s largest airport, main international gateway, and closest airport to Ouidah; which sits about 40km (or a one hour drive) away. As you’d expect, Cadjehoun is a fairly small airport and not exactly the most efficient (although there have been some recent upgrades to the immigration hall; with some fancy new hand scanners that had me waving my hands all over the place like a deranged lunatic). The most important arrival tip I can give is to have your Yellow Fever Certificate handy; regardless of where you’re coming from, some doctor-like guys in white coats will definitely ask to see it (although I’m yet to be convinced that they actually know what they’re looking for). Once you’re outside, you’ll be met by a wall of people, most of whom are picking up relatives but some are ‘taxi’ drivers (I use the term loosely as I’m pretty sure most don’t fall under any form of official licensing system).
Although bush taxis do operate between major cities (including Cotonou to Ouidah), a new, regulated (and more relaible) taxi system has sprung up where all the cars are yellow ‘Dusters’. This is probably your best bet if you haven’t pre-arranged a transfer to Ouidah. If you want to hop in a regulated taxi then bypass all of the unlicensed taxi drivers hanging around outside the arrivals door and head left towards the carpark. You should (depending on what time of day your flight arrives) find them parked up here. You might initially find some reluctance to drive you all the way to Ouidah, so be prepared to part with some extra cash to sweeten the deal.
Once you’re in Ouidah the city operates a motorbike taxi system known locally as ‘Zémidjan’ (Zay-Me-Jan), which means, ‘take me there quick/fast’ in Fongbe. Note that the phrase doesn’t include the word ‘safely’. Drivers are instantly recognisable in Ouidah by their blue vests (in Cotonou the vests are yellow) and have abundant availability. As you can probably imagine, Zémidjan drivers don’t operate on a metered system, so expect to barter. If you don’t think you’re getting a good deal, then just try the next guy who’ll be along in a matter of seconds. If you aren’t used to motorbike travel as a passenger (that includes me), then you might be better arranging a car and driver through your accommodation as the balancing takes some getting used to.
I’m a stereotypical Brit; I only speak English and the French and German lessons I took back in school appear to have been lost to the sands of time. If you’re an Anglophone like me, my advice is to take a French phrasebook with you. Whilst most people you encounter will be much more linguistically adept than you are (and willing to give speaking English a go), there will definitely be occasions when you’re going to have to try your hand at speaking French (giving a destination to a motorbike taxi is a good example). I find people in Benin to be really friendly, so make a joke of it and you’ll be just fine.
It’s definitely worth considering the weather patterns when planning a trip to Ouidah as Benin has very distinguishable wet and dry seasons. In the south of Benin (where Ouidah is located), the climate is fairly tropical and the main dry season is November to March. The main season for rain is between April and June. There are also ‘mini’ wet and dry seasons: July to August is the mini-dry season and September to October is the mini-wet season.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the Ouidah tourist calendar is the annual Fete du Vodoun (Voodoo Festival) held on January 10th. Although Voodoo is an official national religion in Benin, and the festival is held across the entire country, Ouidah is the undisputed center of the religion; not just in Benin but in the World. Let’s just say that the festival is a true spectacle and one not to be missed – so long as you aren’t squeamish (or vegan) in any way, shape or form. If you imagine something akin to a much darker version of Carnival in Rio where, alongside much drinking and merriment, chicken’s throats are ripped out by the teeth of high priests, goats are slaughtered to the Python Gods, devotees engage in acts of self-mutilation on the streets and beach parties rage through the night. It’s colorful, loud, inebriating and, at times, barbaric; something not to be missed but probably not fun for the whole family! If you plan to visit for the festival then make sure you book accommodation well ahead of time as voodoo practitioners travel from all over the world to attend.
The Slave Route and the Door of No Return: Together with Elmina in Ghana, Gorée Island in Senegal and Albreda in Gambia, Ouidah was one of the four slave trade gates in West Africa from the 17th to 19th century. It’s estimated that over a million slaves left for Brazil, the U.S and the Caribbean colonies from Ouidah and the beginning of that horrific journey commenced on Ouidah’s Slave Route. Starting at the reconstructed Portuguese Fort (which is now the Ouidah Museum of History), you can trace the 4km route from the fort’s slave market to the Door of No Return; which memorializes the slave’s final moments on African soil. Other notable monuments along the route include the Tree of Forgetfulness Monument; where slaves were branded and forced to circle the tree in order to symbolically clear their memory of Africa and their homes, and the Zomaï Huts Memorial; which memorializes the huts in which slaves were kept shackled for months in perpetual darkness before boarding the slaver’s ships. It’s intensely sobering but something that should be experienced by all visitors to Benin. If you want to hire a guide (including English speaking guides) to accompany you in your car then visit the Ouidah Museum of History and you’ll find them there.
Temple des Python: The temple’s origins can be traced back to the Kingdom of Dahomey whose King at the time was saved from impending death at the hands of ferocious warriors by the pythons which emerged from the forest. The Python Temple was subsequently built in honor of the protection that the pythons afforded the King. Today the temple is filled with 41 of the royal residents (41 being an important spiritual number in the voodoo calendar) which are considered sacred and represent the god Dangbe, who is one of the most powerful spirits of voodoo representing life and fertility. It’s safe to say that if you’re not a fan of snakes then the temple isn’t going to be much fun for you. No sooner than two minutes after entering the temple I had a python draped around my neck and another in my hands – the remaining 39 I sat with in the main temple complex. Having said that, given that all of the snakes are released into town at night to feed, I guess that if you suffer from ophiophobia then Ouidah may not be for you in general! There’s a small fee to enter the temple which pays for a guide (we only found guides in French) so make sure you have local currency (in small denominations) handy.
The Sacred Forest: More rugged Voodoo Park than forest, the Sacred Forest of Kpasse is said to be the final resting place of King Kpasse, the King of the Dahomey Kingdom in the 16th Century. However, like most things in a country full of legend and mysticism, this is no ordinary cemetery. Instead, the former King, who loved Ouidah and its people so much that he never wanted to die, is said to have secretly disappeared and then transformed himself into a giant iroko tree (as you do) which still stands in the forest today. The tree is today said to grant wishes to those who touch it and high above it you’ll find resident flying foxes (themselves a worthy reason to visit). The remainder of the forest is filled with a multitude of statues of voodoo gods; each with its own story which your designated guide will recount to you with much excitement in English or French. If for no other reason you should visit the Sacred Forest to get a better idea of the feverish excitement and devotion to legend that the Voodoo religion elicits from its devotees.
Ouidah Museum of History: Formerly the Portuguese Slave Fort and Market, the Fort is now the Ouidah Museum of History and offers displays on all of the key topics of the region: the Fort itself, the Kingdom of Xwéda , the Kingdom of Dahomey , the Slave Trade, Voodoo, and a really interesting photography exhibit on the Cultural Links between Benin and the New World. In honesty I’m not usually a museum kind of person (I’m one of those uncultured people that gets bored in museums), but I found this one really interesting and worthwhile visiting. The entrance fee to the museum includes an accompanying guide in French or English (without which the museum wouldn’t have been half as interesting). If you want to continue your education even further then you might also want to check out the ‘Maison de Brasil’ museum which also showcases Voodoo and slave trade and is located in the former residence of the Brazilian Governor.
Basilica of the Immaculate Conception: To start with an obvious statement, this isn’t Rome; so don’t be expecting anything too spectacular! But what the Basilique de l’Immaculée Conception (a Roman Catholic minor basilica) does offer is an interesting insight into the interaction of two of Benin’s major religions; Catholicism and Voodoo. What I found immediately interesting when I arrived in Ouidah was the sight of the Basilica located slap bang in front of the Temple of Pythons. It’s a clear statement that somehow the Beninese seem to have made the two work in harmony. The Basilica is very much frequented by the devotees of both religions and the practices and beliefs of Voodoo and Catholicism are often interwoven; with Catholics paying homage and participating in voodoo rites and rituals and vice versa. Anything is possible in the wonderful (and sometimes wonderfully weird) Benin!
Ouidah Tourism Authority Website: www.office-tourismeouidah.org
Ouidah Museum of History Website: http://www.museeouidah.org/Home-Eng.htm