Ganvie stilt city and the history of slave trade in Ouidah

10-11th December 2017 

Also called the Venice of Africa, Ganvie is the largest water city of Africa where life takes place entirely among boats and stilts houses. Ouidah is instead the voodoo capital of West Africa and is also known for the sad history concerning the slave trade.

Stilts houses Stilts homes
City on stilts Stilts city
Stilt house

Ganvie is a city on stilts among the largest in Africa and in the world, found in southern Benin just a short distance away from the capital Cotonou. Ganvie can only be reached by canoe and is located along the northern shores of Lake Nokoue, a remote area with no roads, chosen as a residence by the Tofinu people during the 16th century, to hide from soldiers looking for people to be sent to the slave trade market.

Ganvie has about 20,000 inhabitants living in stilts houses, built with wood and bamboo. In the past the roofs were built by straw, but starting from the last few years, they tend to use corrugated metal sheets, as they are more waterproof and require less maintenance.

Fisherman at work Fishermen throwing a net
One of the most important activities in Ganvie is fishing, which involves adults and children, who launch their nets in the shallow waters of Nokoue lake, among stilt houses and fields of water lilies in bloom.
Nokoue lake Ganvie
Woman in pirogue Water city
African city on water City on the water
As in a sort of "waterworld", life in Ganvie takes place entirely on the water, moving on board of traditional wooden pirogues, some of which are motor-powered. People use the boat to go shopping at the floating market, to go to school, to go fishing and move between the stilts buildings of the city.
Church on stilts Church Ganvie
Priest in Africa Chorus in church
Audio system of the church


A church, built with a few wooden beams that act as a suspended floor, corrugated metal sheets for roofs and walls, houses a religious ceremony where the sermon is spread through a powerful sound system to any corner of the city.
How to obtain fresh water in Africa
In Ganvie, as in many African villages, there is no aqueduct that serves the houses, so the water must be taken from a distributor and transported to the house by canoe, collecting it into large containers.
Hotel in Ganvie Ganvie hotel
For those who want to visit Ganvie for longer time, appreciating this huge stilt city at different times of the day, a modest hotel located on a small island, can be the ideal place to spend the night.
Pythons temple
A short distance from Ganvie, in southern Benin, visitors cannot miss a visit to Ouidah, the world's capital of voodoo and a city well known for the history of slave trade. The excursion to Ouidah begins by visiting the Temple of the Pythons, a place where snakes are venerated as protectors of the city and purifiers of the soul.
Temple of the Pythons
Temple for voodoo rituals
Voodoo rituals take place in the Temple of the Pythons. A priest performs rituals by making fetishes and amulets inside a gloomy building inaccessible to the uninitiated, while a sacred tree welcomes requests from adherents, followed by animal sacrifices.
Tree of the wishes
Voodoo sacrifices Remains from a voodoo ritual
A sanctuary instead becomes a pile of animal remains sacrificed as an offering to the represented divinity.
Sacred pythons Sacred snakes
Sacred python Python around the neck
The Python Temple is home to almost 100 snakes, protected as a divinity. In Benin it is believed that killing a python brings bad luck and negativity, while wearing one around the neck allows the soul to purify.
Ouidah museum
The Portuguese Fort of Ouidah dates back to the first half of the eighteenth century and is a structure that played a very important role as a diplomatic base during the colonial era. In 1961 the Portuguese were expelled and the fort was partially destroyed. Subsequently restored and turned into a museum, the building houses exhibits that illustrate the sad events happened in West Africa during the slave trade: facts that the whole world should know, but that I cannot show, because in the museum is strictly forbidden to take pictures.
Ouidah Dusty red road in Africa

The remaining part of the excursion to Ouidah is dedicated to the slave trade in West Africa, traveling along the same route traveled by slaves from the city's center to the beach, where they were finally boarded and sent to the New World.

The last journey of the slaves began in a large square where they were selected and bought by the intermediaries: this was actually possible only with the complicity of the local chiefs and kings who governed these regions, selling people forcefully collected here and there in West Africa, in exchange of luxury items unavailable in the continent.

Tree of no return
Along the road to the beach, the slaves made 3 turns around the tree of no return so called because, from this moment, they were certain that they would never return alive in Africa again. Today the tree is gone, but in its place there is a memorial representing a siren.
Slave trade in West Africa
Before being taken on board the ship, the slaves were locked up for many days in this building, bound, gagged and treated inhumanly, to allow a sort of natural selection: only the strongest had to survive, as they could be sold at higher prices once arrived at final destination.
Slave trade
Tree of return Sausage tree
The next stop was the "tree of return" where slaves turned around three times as a propitiatory ritual, to return to Africa in the form of a spirit once dead overseas. Currently it is a large Sausage tree, a tree quite widespread in Africa.
Memorial of dead slaves
Slaves not surviving the torture practiced before boarding the ship, were just thrown (sometimes still alive) in a large mass tomb, where a memorial was recently built. The skeletons of thousands of people were found in the pit.
Door of no return in Benin Point of no return of the slaves
Finally, the slaves passed the point of no return, where they took their last steps on the African continent, before boarding the slave ship waiting offshore.
Village along a beach in Benin
Exploring the shore line in southern Benin, we found a large beach with some remote villages.
Casa del Papa resort Resort in Benin
Beach in Benin Sea in Benin
Along the beach, in contrast with the conditions of local people, there are some luxury resorts for tourists.
Effects of Harmattan wind
In Benin, as in much of West Africa, between early December and February, the Harmattan wind blows, a cool and dusty wind from Sahara desert, producing a gray sky with the sun shining through (but still no rain).

° ° °

° ° °

Back to other trips

About West Africa: Ghana, Togo, Benin

Contact | About us | Privacy and use of cookies


This site is copyright protected, please contact the author before using any part.