Last weekend we traveled to Ouidah, a pleasant small city about an hour from Cotonou. There are certain benefits to living in Cotonou to be sure – access to great Thai and Indian food and decent sushi, for instance – but honestly, I’d rather live in Ouidah. It’s smaller, calmer. The streets are lined with small shops, and people sit out in front of them chatting and visiting. There are public spaces with real green grass. Much more so than in Cotonou, there’s a sense of community all around you.
There’s also a lot of history.
During the slave trade, people from throughout West Africa were brought to Ouidah where they were crammed into boats bound across the Atlantic, mostly for Brazil and the West Indies. The slave trade lasted four centuries, and during its height in the 18th century an estimated 25,000 slaves a year passed through Ouidah. Today a monument stands in the place from which they were marched out to sea.
It’s interesting to hear Africans talk about the slave trade. They don’t just blame Westerners. In their view, the African chiefs who sold their own people to the Westerners are just as accountable.
Another stop on our Ouidah tour was the local history museum, housed in a former Portuguese fort. Most interesting to me were the exhibits about the eventual repatriation of former slaves, mostly from Brazil but from Haiti and Cuba too, and what they brought back and incorporated into Beninese culture.
I also strolled through the local market. What’s that you see, hair extensions perhaps?
Actually, no, not hair extensions at all. Animal tails in fact. Plus various other animal parts too.
Now is probably a good time to tell you that Ouidah is known for more than just its slave history. It’s also Benin’s “voodoo capital.” I somehow stumbled into the voodoo section of the market. Table after table were filled with similar items.
Voodoo has existed in Benin forever but it’s been practiced in public since the government made it an official religion in 1996. There’s a voodoo museum. The country celebrations a national voodoo day. Contrary to popular belief, most voodoo is actually good stuff — summoning the positive spirits of ancestors. Although the bad stuff you’ve certainly heard more about exists too. Next time you see Andy in person, ask him about his curse.
And of course no visit to Ouidah is complete without a trip to the Python Temple. Why pythons? Voodoo practitioners consider pythons manifestations of the serpent god.
Never one to be outdone by his wife, Andy opted for the two python photo op.