x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Around Africa: Togo to Benin

West Africa offers everything from idyllic scenery to sombre history.

A statue of Behanzin, the 11th and last king of independent Dahomey, at Place Goho in Abomey.
A statue of Behanzin, the 11th and last king of independent Dahomey, at Place Goho in Abomey.

In the village of Kouma Konda in Togo, north of the tiny country's coastal capital, Lomé, we hike through hills blanketed in forests of teak, ficus, yucca and avocado trees, perforated by cultivated plots of pineapple, manioc and coffee. The local guide points out all of the above and more, including natural paints secreted by the trees, and ends our morning hike by slicing open cacao fruit for Roger, my travelling companion, and I to eat. We scoop out the white, heavenly pulp, and since any day in which one eats raw cacao before noon is, by definition, a good one, we decide to end things there. We relax for the rest of the afternoon at Auberge des Papillons, a guest house run by a local lepidopterist - a butterfly fanatic, to you and me - named Prosper.

If only West African life were always this idyllic. This is picture-book Africa, the Africa of glossy travel magazines and, if these countries could only afford them, promotional spots on CNN. It's good that we're indulging in it now, for we'll soon be entering Nigeria, which in the global popular imagination represents the motherland of corruption and scams.

We don't linger in Togo, which is little more than an hour's drive from west to east, but move on to Benin, another diminutive land. Shaped like a club or a mushroom, until 1975 Benin was known as the Republic of Dahomey after a pre-colonial kingdom that once flourished here.

Our first destination is Ouidah, a peaceful, partially cobbled town the charm of which belies the weight of its history, for this was once one of the main conduits of the African slave trade. From their capital in Abomey, about 100km inland, the Dahomey kings prospered by providing a steady supply of human chattel to European merchants, from whom they bought guns to subdue their internal enemies. Ouidah, the kingdom's port, was the slaves' departure point for the New World. The four-kilometre route from the town centre to the beach is known as the Route des Esclaves, for it was down this road that slaves were marched from the auction square to the ships. The West African coast is dotted with monuments to the victims of slavery but few, if any, stretches of Atlantic seashore are more strongly associated with the slave trade than this area, once known as the Slave Coast.

We're here for a less sombre reason: the annual vodun festival, for Ouidah is also the unofficial capital of West African vodun, an animistic belief system known more popularly as voodoo. The festival features traditional dances, acrobatics and a procession of dignitaries, including the president of Benin, several foreign ambassadors and various local vodun "kings". Nearly sharing centre stage with the performers, a host of foreign photographers snaps away at the spectacle, sometimes crouching down for close-ups of stomping feet, cowrie-shell jewellery and braided skirts. It's a raucous affair and an authentic celebration of local culture, yet it also feels completely staged. Photography permits sell for about US$20 (Dh73) each. I decline, although not without noting how wonderful this would all look on my coffee table.

I'm hoping for a bit of serendipity to colour my visit to Benin, and I get it the next morning. I get up to find Roger enjoying breakfast in the hotel restaurant with a man named Olivier, a citizen of the Republic of Congo. According to our current itinerary, we'll soon be visiting Congo-Brazzaville - "little Congo", as distinct from its giant neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo - following our passage through Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon. I'm eager to tap Olivier, who fled the country to Paris during the wars of the 1990s, for some advice, as we expect this to be one of the more difficult and, if we make a wrong turn on the main highway, potentially dangerous parts of the upcoming journey. Before I can broach the topic, Olivier takes us aback with a different offer entirely. "Would you like to meet the voodoo king?" he offers, out of the blue. "He's a friend of mine." Come again? "Wait here," says Olivier. "He's right across the street. I'll go ask him." Soon enough, Olivier is leading us to the voodoo king of Ouidah - one of them, anyway, for it turns out the title is disputed between two brothers. The king leads us into his private quarters, a sand-floored hut, where for 30 minutes he patiently answers our questions (in French) about Benin society and vodun practices. The chance encounter offered a glimpse of Beninese life that no choreographed photography could ever capture.

We're still interested in seeing what this country of almost nine million has preserved of some of the less palatable parts of its history, including the Dahomey kings' reputation for brutality and their role in the slave trade. After a brief spell in Cotonou, the country's largest city, we head north to Abomey, the former capital. The French, under the pretext of the continued practice of slavery and human sacrifice under the Dahomey dynasty, conquered the kingdom in 1894, and today the former royal palaces in Abomey are tourist attractions - though with the exception of the main palace, which has been converted into a museum, they're rather poorly demarcated.

Artefacts at the museum include a king's throne mounted on the skulls of his enemies while grisly bas reliefs, cartoonishly painted, depict the various antics of the Dahomey kings, which included torture and other activities that are difficult to figure out: what is that guy doing to the other guy with that rock, exactly? And what's about to happen to that baby? Whatever is depicted here, it's safe to say, almost certainly necessitated unwilling victims. The colonial depredations of the Europeans were bad enough; the residents of old Benin were also saddled with native rulers who not only practised brutality but advertised it. Photographs aren't allowed at the main Dahomey palace, a Unesco World Heritage Site - no surprise, considering this is one part of African history that officials may be less keen on promoting. Some things don't look so good on coffee tables.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com