Driving from the Slave Coast and Voodoo centres at Ouidah to Ganvie, “The Venice of Africa”, a group of villages floating in a lake just outside Cotonou; it is an astonishing spectacle, well worth a visit.

Ganvie - The Venice of Africa

Cotonou, the de facto capital (the government buildings are here but parliament meets in Porto Novo), is situated on Lake Nokwe. A boat from a jetty with a large fish market, just outside Cotonou takes us through reed beds and fish farms to the stilt villages of Ganvie (Gan-vee-ay), which were established by people evading the slavers.

This Venice of Africa is a fascinating hotch potch of ethnicities, the locals wearing enormous elaborate sun hats, ferry their boats back and forth carrying fish to the stalls at the main dock, or barter goods at the floating market in the centre of town. There’s even a gushing fountain; boats are manoeuvred underneath the cascade, so that pots can be filed with water from a huge flexible pipe. It’s all done quietly and efficiently. Yet another astonishing spectacle.

Cotonou, Benin

The road to Cotonou market curves up a raised section of road and is filled with yellow vested moto- taxi drivers. The market is a vast and colourful affair that sprawls over numerous streets and branching alleys. There are no separate sections, as in many markets and the stalls are a jumble of different types of produce: vegetables, fish, baskets, red cheeses, dried prawns and live goats. Carts jostle to pass in the cramped spaces and the stall holders grimace if they see the camera.

 As it’s New Year’s Eve my charismatic guide Noah has taken me out to dinner at a bar. He tells me that his father had two wives; his mother was the first and had four children. The second had six. Polygamy is still very common in rural areas for West Africa, less so in the cities. Having many children is a means of securing free labour for agriculture. Noah’s siblings are all well-educated and in relatively well-paid jobs, several are teachers. His story is more interesting than the bar, which is not exactly lively, though there is (eventually) live music. The whole city seems very quiet. A few fireworks light up the sky at midnight.

Next stop, Niger, I hope

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