Waterworld

Vicky Lane explores Benin's legendary water kingdom, Ganvie, by canoe Waterworld

The Tofinu tribe learn to swim before they can walk, according to my guide Boris. And for good reason. Their village of Ganvie is a community of charmingly hotch-potch, hand-built houses made with wood and plant materials in the middle of Lake Nokoue.

'The Venice of Africa' has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. Today it is the most popular tourist spot in West Africa, attracting thousands of visitors every year. But the village wasn't always on the water. Legend has it the Tofinu shifted their home from Nokoue's shores in the late 16th century to escape approaching Dahomey warriors – a fierce tribe in the slavery business. Knowing the raiders were scared of the water spirits believed to dwell in the lake, the village chief decided that moving his village on to the lake would save his people.

More than 30,000 people call Ganvie home and have adapted practically to the constraints of life on water

Local life on river


Fishing boat

 

From top: the colourful floating market; handing over supplies to sell at the market on shore across the lagoon; fishermen: fishing is both the village's main staple and source of income.

Small wooden canoes with patchwork sails bob gently on the horizon, while water-taxis, crammed with villagers and their purchases from the market on zoom past, causing large waves to ripple across the surface. Muscular fishermen stand perfectly balanced in narrow, rocking canoes, powerfully hurling white nets across the water. Unsurprisingly, fish is both the village's main staple and source of income.

The largest stilted settlement in Africa, more than 30,000 people call Ganvie home and have adapted practically to the constraints of life on water. The village is navigated via a vast network of narrow canals, which snake around the complex's 3,000 buildings on poles. Electricity is provided via generators, official water 'stations' gush out plentiful drinking water and travel is conducted almost exclusively by canoe –paddled or punted Venetian-style.

Doubling as stalls, canoes line-up side by side, piled high with merchandise – huge baskets of vegetables, stacks of wood, clay cooking pots – weighed down so low in the water that they look sure to capsize.

Night falls around 7pm, but lake life fails to slow, with villagers expertly manoeuvring their canoes in the darkness. After a long day in the sweltering equatorial heat I drift off to sleep peacefully to a gentle rocking of the water lapping against the bamboo stilts.


The full version of this article was originally published in b.inspired April 2016.
© Photos by Tim E White

Fly to Cotonou with Brussels Airlines

At Brussels Airlines, we believe your holiday should start the minute you are on the plane.

Enjoy our top-class service and our excellent on board experience, all without worries. We'll make sure your stress stays behind and we'll do it with an extra smile!

Book your flight to Cotonou »

Close