An Intriguing city

A journey away from my steel-box home always overwhelms me more than it should. My lack of a car, a local phone, or a sense of direction make exploring feel like a monumental task. That’s why I’m glad we didn’t wait too long before heading out to Ganvié, the lesser known Venice of Africa.

Ganvié was the first Beninois attraction I hoped to visit. I’ve been reading a book called Show Me the Magic (affiliate link) written by a white woman, Annie Caulfield, who hires a local taxi driver to show her around the small country of Benin. Her stories are humorous and interesting, and once I got used to the travel/memoir writing style, I loved learning about the country I would visit soon.

Caulfield shares stories about kings and vodou, slave trade routes and culture from north to south. Early on she she shares her experience visiting this city built over a lake where all the buildings teeter on stilts. This intrigued me and I felt Benin becoming less of an abstract West African nation. Sounds a little bit like Venice, right? This village is known as the “Venice of Africa” but is worlds of difference away.

We got to a high wooden dock where many long motor boats and smaller pirogues (dugout canoes) waited to bring locals and tourists to the stilt village. We met our guide, Lawrence, who told us the price and brought us to our boat.

legend has it…

We set off on a journey towards the lake city while Lawrence told us about the origins of Ganvié. It was hard for me to understand his English, but I filled in the blanks with what I had read in Show Me the Magic. There was a long-standing war hundreds of years ago. The dominant tribe in southern Benin, the Fon, had started selling those from smaller tribes to the Portuguese to prevent the capture and enslavement of their own tribe. The small Tofinu tribe fled across the lake because the mandates of war dictated that the Fon could not capture those who lived on the water. They followed their leader who had found a small group of tiny islands in the middle of Lake Nokoue.

Our boat brought us past fisherman and families coming and going from the city dock. Small huts perched in the middle of lake on stilts give us an idea of what to expect.Venice of Africa Ganvié

We pass endless rows of what looked like palm fronds popping vertically out of the water. Ganvié is primarily a fishing village. Lawrence tells us that they catch a lot of tilapia. This floating village has prospered over the years by utilizing a unique method of fishing. They create corrals with the palm fronds and lure the fish inside with rich foliage. Apparently once inside, the fish don’t realize they are in a huge leafy cage. They have the time of their lives and get fat and slow. Eventually the villagers are able to easily catch the fish by hand or with nets. The palm fronds line the water like sidewalk curbs. Annie Caulfield mentions in her book that they are used to mark property.

Ganvié palm fronds Venice of AfricaThe Venice of Africa

Small islands start to appear as we pass through by boat. Artificial land supplements the limited soil-space. Villagers reserve land for growing food and housing livestock. This is my first visit to Ganvié, the Venice of Africa, a city of more than 15,000 villagers. You’d never realize the breadth of the town upon first glance.Ganvié hut palm frondsVenice of Africa Ganvié

It’s strange to get used to seeing all the houses above water. At first (brace yourself for my ethnocentric view) I wondered how anyone got any exercise if they couldn’t walk anywhere. After thinking for a moment, I realized that was the dumbest thing I could postulate. Of course, they get great exercise! They go everywhere by boat (or by swimming I’m told) so their arms are probably nothing like my skinny, soft arms. They build their own homes where there is no land. Ask me to do that with a team of 10 and I wouldn’t know where to start. Silly American; I’m too accustomed to adjusting my lifestyle for exercise.

an outsider’s view

Our group sticks out, as usual. I don’t mind looking so different from everyone around me (I used to). Lawrence and his younger brother acted as our cultural “interpreter” although they were not local to this village. However, it is painful not knowing their perception of us. Neither can we express our motives and purpose for being there to those we greet. They may always view us as extremely wealthy but it’s hard being an outsider and onlooker.

One of the women sat in a pirogue just outside the porch of a house. She sat among all sorts of parcels and storage containers. She pursed her lips and her eyes narrowed as she tried to hold a massive pot of meat broth still so it didn’t spill due to the small wake our boat had produced. However, the children standing on the porch started to dance and scream upon sight of us. What a treat it seemed, to see a full boat of elusive yovos (white people). Who cares whether dinner tips into the lake; their yovo sighting was the most exciting occurrence of the day judging from their flailing and screaming.Venice of Africa Ganvié

Another woman hollered at us as we floated by. Lawrence answered her. He turned and told us that she wanted to know who gave us permission to take pictures. Lawrence covered for us by explaining that we were taking pictures at his command that he used for his business purposes exclusively. While I was comforted by his attempted justification of our heavy camera usage, I was uncomfortable to be those people. Those people go to places they don’t understand, and ask ignorant questions that don’t make sense while ignoring any of the cultural cues offered by the locals.

I hate being one of those people but I stand on the knowledge that I know who I am and that I come to learn and connect. That has to count for something.

Today, while talking with one of the local workers that staffs our hospital ship while we are docked in Cotonou, I mentioned that I’d been to Ganvié for a visit. He made a face and gagged. “Ganvié! You don’t want to visit that place.” I won’t repeat the rest of what he said, but to help you understand, I will share one of my most pressing questions:

In a town with no solid ground, where do you go to the bathroom?

There are so many questions that form in my mind, but the presence of questions means the adventure was worth it. I’d love to visit the Venice of Africa again to see what else I notice and learn.

Have you ever felt like your foreign appearance put a barrier between you and the people you wanted to learn about? How do you try to connect to locals that see you only as a tourist? I’d love to hear your advice and experiences!
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28 comments on “The Venice of Africa: Ganvié on Stilts”

  1. I definitely felt a barrier between myself and the locals when I travelled in Africa. A lot of it had to so with language, but everyone who I was able to communicate with was lovely and I tried to learn a little Swahili. I think showing an effort to learn the local language and customs always helps people see you as less of a tourist.

    • You’re right! When I say things in the local language, I always get smiles and a good response. Here, it was hard because the dialect was different than the city nearby where I am living.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing because I’ve never been here before! As a matter of fact I’ve never even heard of it! It’s interesting to hear about what you said about cameras and taking pictures. I’ve definitely been in the same situation before. It’s times like that when it’s good to have a guide or someone who speaks the language.

  3. Wow! This sounds like a fascinating trip. I love going places and seeing the local sites like this. You’re a beautiful storyteller as well. I saw a side of Africa that I never knew existed.

  4. What an amazing place. I’ve never been to Africa, but it reminded me of the little villages in the mountains of Mexico where the descendants of Aztecs still live and speak their native language. You’re so lucky to have had an opportunity to visit such unique place!

    • South Africa is the most beautiful city in the world and I could go every year and never get bored. I’ve been twice and feel like I barely scratched the surface.

  5. This is so interesting. I’ve visited Africa a lot but never heard of this place. I also hate the feeling of being “those people” in Africa. People usually soften when we point out we’re Irish and were occupied by the British too. I can only imagine what it’s like being from the US ? I think it’s good to be somewhere where we are “other” at times. It makes me more culturally sensitive (by making me feel like an idiot at times haha)

  6. Despite it obviously being a pretty cloudy day, your pictures are beautiful. I feel like you captured the authentic parts of Ganvie. Being that I haven’t had very many international trips, I haven’t experienced looking so different from locals that I felt a barrier.

    • Thank you for the kind words! That’s one of my favorite things about NYC; you never stick out no matter what color your skin is, unless you’re carrying a huge camera.

  7. Your posts are like breaths of fresh air in a crowded world.I cam imagine the tilapia getting caught.
    There are parts of India untouched like this.Whichskeletal ypu wonder

  8. I mean, when I was in TURKEY – there was a HUGE language barrier, but thankfully we had the MOST AMAZING tour guide ever who could speak the language and was really the most amazing crutch for us so we could absorb as much culture as possible!

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