A remarkable history. Some beautiful legends. Originality of the architecture were main reasons for my visit to the lake village of Ganvie. This most unique village of Africa. Entirely built on the waters of Lake Nakoue.
It is believed that Ganvie was created by crocodiles. Great Egret. A dash of magic and the people of Tofinu. Back in the 17th century when the Kings of Dahomey, with their invincible Fon warriors, searched the kingdom for weaker and smaller tribes to be sold as slaves.
When the Fon became an actual danger to the Tofinu people. Their king, Abodohoue, transmogrified himself into the Great Egret and flew over the country to seek a refuge for his people.
The waters of Lake Nakoue were an answer to his prayers.
This is when the crocodiles come into the story. It is believed that the people of Tofinu used them to transport wood for the houses to be set on the water.
The ruthless Fon soldiers strongly believed that a truly terrible demon lives in the lake and didn’t dare to set their feet in the lake’s waters. The Tofinu people were saved. Etymologically, Ganvie means ‘we survived’. It is sometimes translated as ‘collectivity of those who found peace at last’.
I love legends. Africa is full of them. The people here strongly believe in magical powers and spirits. My logical mind found out that it wasn’t a demon but simple law enforcement of the Abomey Kingdom.
Fon people were forbidden to attack water settlements. King Abodohoue was a very wise man, but not necessarily one in hold of magical skills.
Doesn’t it sound much better in the legend version with all that drama?! I was totally engrossed by the story told by my guide.
On the way to Ganvie you can observe fish farms and fishers. People travelling back and forth to the shores of the lake in little boats. Pirogues carved from tree trunks, or ‘pinasse’, a motorised canoe. I chose a faster version to get to the village. Then I changed to the normal canoe once in Ganvie.
The entire Ganvie has been built over water. Traditional and very colourful bamboo houses stand on stilts. Which need to be changed every year. Visiting a neighbour for a coffee or gossip requires a boat trip. The closest shore is several kilometers away.
Although the threat of slavery is only a distant memory. Over the generations they have grown accustomed to their unique lifestyle and have no desire to abandon it.
It was explained to me that the village is completely sustainable. People only go ashore to sell fish. They have their own restaurants. Churches. A mosque. Clinic. A few little hotels and very fashionable bars in Chez Raphael and Chez M. The ‘it’ places to hang around for the young and wealthy.
There is very little solid ground in Ganvie. The soil for it was brought by the villagers on their boats in order to build a proper school for the kids. And a cemetery for the spirits to rest peacefully in the ground after whole life spent on the water
Fish are cultivated and bred within the organic fishing farms. The fishermen trap and breed fish by using underwater fences made of bamboo and nets. These small-scale fish farms work very naturally. The fence rots and creates nourishment. The young fish go into the fishery through holes that are big enough to let them through.
They stay in until they are too big to leave and then the fisherman catch them. The lagoon is a huge brackish lake fed by the ocean tides. As well as by the major rivers of Benin. Along with the fish, the locals catch shrimp, crab, oysters and mussels.
The main attraction for me were the fresh water intake point. The floating market where women in their small dugouts sell everything from fruits and vegetables to fabrics, hardware and pottery.
The boats, the colours and the water, it creates an amazing picture.