Ouidah – City of Weariness

I’m not sure whether it was travel-weariness, people-weariness, or just that feeling I sometimes have when I feel a bit ‘low’ and need to do something different to push myself out of it, but I didn’t really have the enthusiasm for Ouidah. I certainly should have done; on paper it was a small town with an interesting & historical heart, with a sacred voodoo forest, memorials to slavery, a beach, and a couple of museums. But I just felt the whole day descend into indifference and mild frustration.

Maybe it all started before I’d even left Cotonou. According to my guidebook, the share-taxis to Cotonou left from a bus station called “Gare Jonquet”. Maybe it was my accent, but the moto driver wasn’t sure where that was nor why I’d want to go there. He dropped me off by where he thought the buses went from; an urban industrial area with no signs of life. A couple of blocks away I did find a large run-down concrete shelter with taxis, and was eventually directed to the right one. Eventually being the operative word as despite Ouidah being only an hour’s drive away and pretty much the next town along the coast, it took an hour or two for the taxi to be ready.

This meant I didn’t arrive in Ouidah until just after 11am. The taxi dropped me off … ‘somewhere’ on the edge of town, possibly because he was bored and didn’t want to drive me the rest of the way along the by-pass to the taxi station. By the time I reached somewhere that was on my map, I was hot and hungry; unfortunately this coincided with the ‘siesta’ that West Africa has to ward off the heat of the day. Café after café I passed was closed; it wasn’t a case of the shutters being down, more that the owners were lying on benches in front of their shops, asleep in the shade. I did eventually find a restaurant in the centre of town; quite a touristy place with a more-standard menu – it was empty, but it was open.

Along the way, I’d managed to get myself attached to one of those annoying, persistent, ‘guides’ – sometimes they can be quite useful but this particular chap seemed to me at least unfortunately something more akin to a ‘chancer’ just looking to make a quick buck. He’d found me when I was walking through the main square, avoiding the Python Temple, and … see, I’ve always found it hard to say “no” to people, something that’s affected me throughout my personal life as well. I could tell he had a particular rehearsed ‘spiel’, especially when I kept trying to get him off-track.

Ouidah memorial
The statue in the main square commemorating that this was the place where slaves were physically bought and sold – where the money (and presumably goods/services/arms) changed hands.

He was ‘useful’ though in the sense that he could get me the 4km down the ‘Route Des Esclaves’ to the ‘Point of No Return’ – like many other sea-towns along this coast, Ouidah was a noted port for the slave-trade, and the road name reflects the route that the human cargo was taken down before being loaded onto the ships. The difference with the Ouidah trail though were the rituals undertaken on the route have been memorialised as well as the final departure point – one such was the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness’. Slaves were forced to walk around a particular tree en-route several times so they would become dizzy and disoriented – in a sense ‘forgetting’ who they were for a bit and making it much easier for the tradespeople and slave-owners to ‘re-program’ them to being more compliant and less individual.

Ouidah Point of No Return
This is the memorial arch to slavery, the ‘Porte du Non Retour’, decorated in symbols and reminiscences of the slave trade.

Ouidah tree
Males were forced to walk around 9 times, females 7 times. While it probably in and of itself didn’t do anything, as a symbol (‘we are in charge of you now, we can get you to do anything we want’), it must have been quite powerful.

Obviously Ouidah also has a dedicated museum to this part of history, but while it was interesting, it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know, either from prior knowledge or from other museums along the coast. Maybe my interest had waned also for being followed intensely by the guide who I couldn’t seem to shake off. The unusual contemporary art museum (“Le Musée de la Fondation Zinsou”) near the restaurant piqued my mind a little more, oddly, with a number of exhibits including a series of traditional tribal masks painted with modern political commentary (depicting things like women’s education, water, and even national politicians. Satire isn’t just the preserve of the Western World – remember, despite its recent history, Benin is a fully-functioning democratic state).

Ouidah Art Museum
One of the exhibits in the art museum was this car made predominantly out of plastic petrol containers – ’50’ being representative of the size of that particular car’s fuel tank.

By the time we got back from the Route Des Esclaves, it was pushing 4pm, so I never did make it to the sacred Voodoo forest. I probably need to come back to Ouidah and see it properly, on my own, when I haven’t been immersing myself so much in the history, and on a day when I feel like smiling.

Visited 11 December 2014

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