Less than an hour outside of Cotonou there’s a fascinating little town, population 20,000, that’s different from all other towns in Benin. It’s built entirely on stilts.
According to local legend this town came to be about 400 years ago in an attempt to escape slavers, who either couldn’t swim or wouldn’t fight on water for religious reasons — the story is a little unclear. But the name Ganvie comes from the Tofinu words “gan,” which means “we are saved” and “vie” which means “community.”
These days Ganvie is best known as “the Venice of Africa.” That may be a little optimistic, but it’s certainly an interesting place.
With the obvious exception that it’s built on stilts and its residents get around on boats, it’s really just like any other Beninese village. There are vegetable markets. Dozens of women moor side by side and sell goods out of their canoes.
There are shops, both big and small.
There are places to buy clothes.
There’s a community center.
Women gather to chat as they go about their daily chores, which include waiting at the community pump where they fill up jugs with clean water for about ten cents a gallon.
It’s about a 15 minute row between Ganvie and dry land. This kid is enjoying the ride.
Ganvie’s economy thrives on fishing, tourism, and trade with nearby Nigeria.
Our tour guide explained that Beninese people are just as fascinated by Ganvie as we are. They love to come and visit and see this strange place for themselves, but they would never want to live here. They consider it too isolated. Plus, they don’t really like water.
But if this lifestyle appeals to you, take note. You can buy your own boat for about $200, and there are plenty of new houses under construction too. I must admit I was a little tempted after doing the math and realizing if I moved to Ganvie I could never work again.
I call dibs on the big one.