Ganvie: The African Village Built Entirely On Stilts
Water is a common theme throughout slave spirituals: Wade in the water, troubled water, and deep water. It is the river water at the slave’s last bath that signifies their first break with Africa and the water of the ocean that marks their final departure and entrance into captivity. We see the water imagery throughout literature and film as it follows enslaved Africans to America and to eventual freedom. For some Africans, however, it was the water that helped them remain free in their own land. Much like Ganvie.
For the Tofinu slaves trying to escape the Fon tribe of Western Africa, it was the water of Lake Nokoue, north of Cotonou, Benin that proved to be their saviour. The powerful Fon were a major player in the slave trade, providing captured tribes people to the Portuguese. Although unrelenting in their methods, the Fon warriors had one line they would not cross. Believing that a terrible demon lived in the lake, and most likely not knowing how to swim, they would not approach the water. The creation of Ganvie became a place of sanctuary and, eventually, the largest stilt village in Africa with a prospering community of 30,000 residents.
Known as “The Venice of Africa,” Ganvie is a fascinating 30-minute boat ride from the shores of Cotonou. Charter a boat run by a local and he will fill you in on the lore and 500-year history of this amazing lake village. With more than 3,000 buildings — including homes, businesses, churches, a mosque, school and hospital – the village and its people are self-sufficient and sustainable. To this day, there is no electricity other than that derived from batteries, generators and solar.
Over the years the residents have brought in boatloads of dirt to support one of their most important structures, the school. The three-side structure has walkways with slender rails to prevent the hundreds of active children from falling into the watery “courtyard” in the middle. School buses are boats filled with children of all ages and captained by 10 year-olds. Houses, some of them two stories, may have small yards of dirt mounds where chickens and goats live. Large blue buckets of water are filled at the local freshwater pump and the mosque is the largest building in town.
Other houses of worship abound. As your pirogue slides gracefully through the water, you don’t have to look hard to see simple houses of worship (most likely of voodoo, filled with women in white dresses. Although the main religion of Benin is Roman Catholicism, the people there are also Presbyterian, and Vodun. Recently, the Catholic Church has begun building what will soon replace the Mosque as the largest building in the village and the residents are creating a new piece of land for a cemetery to provide a resting place for the numerous life-long Ganvie residents.
Difficult as it may be for world-travellers to understand, the majority of people in Ganvie have no interest in ever leaving the village, unless it is to trade or sell the fish they catch and farm. Small-scale fish farming, along with modest tourism, keeps the village afloat (note the irony). They welcome guests and it is possible to stay overnight should you wish. Lake Nokoue represents life and salvation. It provided a unique way of life that kept their ancestors free and provided the strong community they have today. Is it no wonder then that the meaning of Ganvie is “We survived.”?
Main Image: Eric Isselée
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