Porto-Novo – city of the odd museum

As capital cities go, Porto-Novo must rank as one of the world’s least memorable or significant. Although a small town, it doesn’t have the same chilled vibe as Vientiane, nor does it have the compact sightseeing as Washington DC. It’s (just) the second largest city in Benin by population (with around 230k people), but some considerable way behind Cotonou (and lower than the combined Bohicon-Abomey conurbation); Cotonou has the airport, the government departments, and the foreign embassies – Porto-Novo has the actual parliament, oil, cement (!) and, er …

Porto-Novo
View from the bridge over the lagoon at the Southern entry to Porto-Novo. The bridge is quite long, and it carries the road and a currently-disused railway line.

What the city does have is quite a nice approach, at least when coming from Cotonou. It’s built ‘behind’ a lagoon, so you turn off the road that runs along the (industrial) seafront the entire width of Benin just before the border, and go on a large bridge that crosses the wide waterway. It’s actually feels a little juxtaposed; certainly at odds with the dusty, ugly, chemical & industrial vista on the main road.

Porto-Novo
Cathedral in Porto-Novo.

Its status as the capital is a legacy of colonialism: the French ‘took protection of’ the kingdom of Porto-Novo after British aggression. The neighbouring kingdom of Dahomey (capital at Abomey) took exception to this and war broke out, which Porto-Novo effectively won. Although the resulting French colony took the Dahomey name, the capital of the colony remained in Porto-Novo – upon independence this became the capital of the new country.

Porto-Novo
In the main square in Porto-Novo is this statue of what I believe to be the first King of the Porto-Novo Empire, which according to Wikipedia makes him Té-Agbanlin, from around 1700. In any case, I do like the statue…

It’s is a theoretical hour’s drive East of Cotonou, very close to the Nigerian border. Theoretical because there’s pretty much only one road between the two cities – this means that pretty much everyone in Southern Benin wants to travel down it at more-or-less the same time, and it’s only a four-lane dual-carriageway … apparently they’re building a commuter rail line between the two but I saw no evidence of that on my trip.

It also has one of the most bizarre and random museums I think I’ve ever visited. In principle, the ‘Da Silva’ museum is a celebration of the links between Benin and Brazil that came about as a result of the slave trade – although the outside is ‘decorated’ in friezes of some of the more gruesome activities that took place (torture porn rather than consensual BDSM), the inside is designed to show that the links formed between the old homelands and the New World remained strong long after the trade was abolished, and it seems that many of the slaves transported from Benin were sold to plantations in South America.

Porto-Novo
One of the many friezes outside the Da Silva museum. Some of them were pretty graphic.

In practice, the museum felt like the bizarre collection of a hoarder who wanted every random object he could find that had any connection to either Benin or Brazil. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme, reason, nor pattern to the exhibits or its structure, nor was much of it strictly, for want of a better word, ‘relevant’. As an example, one of the more promoted exhibits was what purported to be Benin’s first photocopier. Another room, continuing the theme, had walls displaying photocopies of pretty much every African leader that had ever existed. There were also cars owned by ex-Beninese leaders, but by that point I was just patently confused.
There was also a language barrier. I’ve come to accept that museums in Africa don’t let you wander about on your own; a guide is included in the price and compulsory. My French isn’t that good, but up to now I’ve been able to understand the gist of what’s been said – the people’s accents here have been much clearer than in France, and I think they speak slower too. However, the guide in this museum spoke with a heavy accent and her words were very hard to make out. She was also speaking in English …

Porto-Novo
Typical traditional scene from a local tribe, as painted inside the Ethnographic Museum.

The other museum I went to was a bit more traditional; it had the grand title of the “Alexandre Sènou Adandé Ethnographic Museum”. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything about it except for the fact I bought a cheap bit of cloth from a resident weaver there. This is why I’m not a professional travel blogger.

Porto-Novo
The gates of the Ethnographic Museum, quite ornate I felt.

It was quite a pleasant city to walk around, although it suffered a little from a lack of signage, making it quite easy to get lost in. A nice day-trip from Cotonou, but I’m not sure it’s worth staying the night in. And there’s not many capital cities you can say that about.

Visited 10 December 2014

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