Is this the Venice of Africa?

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Luke Dray recounts his stay in Ganvie, in Lake Nokoué, southern Benin – the largest stilt village in Africa

Frequently called the Venice of Africa in travel books, the floating city of Ganvie was established between the 16th and 17th centuries by the Tofinu people, who took to the lake to avoid the Fon warriors who were capturing slaves for sale to European traders.

Despite few physical barriers protecting Ganvie from attack, Fon religious practice forbade the slave capturers from attacking any communities dwelling on water, laying the basis for today’s Ganvie stilt village.

Now, around 500 years later, there are approximately 20,000 people who call Ganvie home. They have developed an intricate and fascinating culture, making the lake an increasingly popular destination with tourists.

The village is only 11km (as the crow flies) from the chaotic economic capital of Cotonou, yet it takes four hours to get there. There are just a handful of craft stores and three hotels to cater for tourists. I stayed in Auberge Carrefour, a basic hotel where the rooms come with a fan, a mozzie net and a bucket toilet. As it’s set on the lake, all of the waste just goes into the water; not exactly the romance you might expect from an idyllic stilt village!

The few domesticated livestock animals that are farmed live on plots of grass that spring up from the water. Without a good supply of domesticated animals, Ganvie residents rely on a complex system of underwater fencing made from reeds to farm around 30 species of fish.

Once you arrive, it’s not easy to get around, as travelling by boat is the only option. In fact, it is almost exclusively by boat that the villagers travel; and the school is the only one of its 3000 buildings that exists on land.

The typical thing to do is to board a large tourist pirogue for a tour around Ganvie. However, I would suggest hiring a small one with a captain to take you around. The large boat cannot reach into the nitty-gritty ‘backstreets’ (or streams, I suppose), where you will get a true taste of village life. This wasn’t always the case but, due to the rising number of visitors, the tourist boats now typically follow a standard route. The locals, unsurprisingly, got sick of over-excited Westerners sticking cameras in their faces as they go about their normal business. Besides, it is also a popular Voodoo belief that taking a photo removes part of the soul.

How to get there
The logistics of getting to Ganvie are relatively easy: you can get a taxi from Cotonou to Abomey-Calavi, which costs around 5000CFA (about £7). Boats from Abomey-Calavi cost up to 7500CFA (about £10) per person, although the price goes down depending on the number of tourists in a party. The rate for a room in Auberge Carrefour was 5000CFA (about £7), but I was told this varies depending on the time of year and how many people you are with. Tour operators such as Native Eye, Dragoman Overland, Explore! and Landtours Ghana offer expeditions incorporating Ganvie, along with the Voodoo and Somba cultures of Ghana, Togo and Benin.

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