Ganvie: Livelihood on Africa’s largest lake village

A visit to Ganvie is a trail of remarkable history, appreciation of a people’s survival instincts, and originality of their architecture, writes OBINNA EMELIKE who visited this unique village entirely built on the waters of Lake Nakoue.

It is a sunny Thursday afternoon and the Calavi Jetty is a beehive of activity. From market women and hawkers with big trays balanced upon their heads and jam-packed with fishes, fruits and sundries for sale, to commuters dressed in bright print dresses, as well as colourfully designed wooden boats or pirogues whose riders care for nothing but their money, the jetty is bustling to say the least.

Out of curiosity, I ask why the jetty is so busy. A man standing close to me on the jetty platform, who doubles as a tour guide, says the jetty is the gateway to Ganvie, the largest lake village in Africa. What catches my attention most is the confidence with which he says that the village in Lake Nokoué, near Cotonou in Benin Republic, is the adventure that awaits any tourist any time.

Explaining further why Ganvie is an adventure, the tour guide says the lake is about 20 km (12 mi) wide, 11 km (6.8 mi) long, its covers an area of 4,900 ha (12,000 acres), and is partly fed by the Ouémé River and the Sô River, both of which deposit sediments from throughout the region in the lake.

While still wondering on the thrills that could possible make the lake village a true adventure, the tour guide says Calavi jetty is the first or last taste of dry land for people going to and fro Ganvie. At that point, I feel that I have had enough of the land and need to see the length and breadth of Ganvie on water.

We approach one of the boat riders, and try to negotiate the fare, but he insists on getting other passengers, collect the normal fare or we charter and pay handsomely for a tour. We settle for a 2h30-minute tour at CFA15,000 (about $25) per passenger. But averagely the fare is CFA3,000 per passenger on the commercial boat.

The sight of other passengers jam-packed in some commercial boats gives one reason to fear, despite the life jacket, as the boats slowly leave the jetty, increase their speed and disturb the tranquillity of the lake.

While on the boat with a few passengers and the orange life vest on, my tour guide commences his trade, offering all details he knows about the village, especially the history and prowess of the founders.

Ganvie, according to him, is a stilt village situated far out into and precariously above Lake Nokoué in Benin Republic. The village was first built in 16th century by the Tofinu people, as they tried to escape marauding Fon warriors, who kidnapped men and women for sale to European traders.

But while the Tofinu people used the lake as a fortress about 500 years ago, today, it is home to over 30,000 people trying to escape the madness of metropolitan living, especially in Cotonou and Port Novo, the major cities in Benin Republic.

As the boat sails further on the lake, the tour guide continues in his sermon, but the land keeps fading away, leaving you with a large body of endless lake water dotted with sailing and fishing boats.

It is also amusing to see wooden boats of varying sizes passing in the opposite direction amid the many passengers that look squeezed on the boats. As well, fear grips one when a boat overtakes another with great speed, causing waves that almost capsize smaller boats, especially paddled fishing boats.

Our boat rider could not hold his anger when one of such fast boats splashes the salty lake water on our boat, almost drenching us. I recall him saying something in French, which the tour operator interprets as “Reckless man, who is pursuing you?”

Aside the seeming boat race by the commercial operators, the sight of several fishing boats with occupants throwing their nets with age-long skills amuses too. Beyond the fishing boats, the lake also parades several nets laid by the locals to catch special fish species and crayfish.

As you ride further, you will also appreciate the dexterity of the local fishermen who maintain great balance while standing in their narrow boats to cast nets into the waters. There were also fences on water made from dry leaves and stems as ambush for big fishes.

Some of the fishing nets, hidden stumps of dead wood and relics of capsized boats and even plastic wastes are among the dangers all the boat riders must avert in order to safeguard the boats’ blades, avoid capsizing and sail safely.

It is also fun watching the boat riders manoeuvre green lilies or water hyacinth, which cover a good portion of the navigable waters of the lake. The skill is great because they need precision in order to save the boat engine’s fan blade from being entangled with the lilies and break eventually.

About 15 minutes ride on the lake, sights of buildings start emerging. At that point I feel a little relieved because most of the faces I see on the many boats that overtake or approach us were gloomy and make me wondering what the issue is. The tour guide says it is normal as most of them do not want their pictures to be taken without their permission; hence they sit low on the boat and often frown to deny you permission to take photographs.

On our arrival, there is no point alighting from the boat as we do not have a place to stay, rather we keep sailing and touring to discover the lake village; moreover, it is about water.

The village is truly magical. It glows even on water and offers streets, avenues and square that only boats navigate. Though I have not visited Venice before, but with what I read about Venice, I think, Ganvie is Venice of Africa because the whole of the 30,000 inhabitants are hosted on stilt houses on the lake. Everything, from taking a walk, visiting friends, going to school, market and even sleeping, is on water.

As we continue our tour on boat, we see several stilt houses on the lake; some big, small, rickety, many full of humans, among others. Surprisingly, there were many modern ones amid the rickety ones.

But the uniqueness of some of them tells they are of different use, while the signposts on some others say what they are. There are several shops, barbing salons, fashion outfits, many churches, a mosque, a beautifully designed hotel, day-care homes among other business concerns. But they all float on water.

Again, some of the stilt houses offer verandas where children play, just by the edge of the lake. But there is no fear as all the inhabitants of the lake community are taught swimming at tender age.

It amazes to see food vendors, majorly women, ferry their food on boat and sell to homes and individuals on water. The sight is better experienced than told; it is awesome with nothing even a grain of rice being served falling into the lake. The precision and mastery of many skills for survival on water leave one appreciating the Tofinu people. We have to also spend to impact the village, so we ride to an ice cream vendor to buy too, and water on an adjoining street on the lake.

But the intrigue is the farther you ride on the lake the more you see things that will amaze you. One of them is the school. It is huge and built on dry land amid the lake. Surprising! I shout on hearing that. The villagers filled the area, once full of water, with sand from Calavi to ensure their children have a conducive place to study. “Imagine the tons of sand, the many boats involved, the time and sacrifice. I salute their communal effort,” the tour guide says.

I see it the other way round. The lake community is seeing future from different eyes. While their forefathers used the lake as a hideout from slave hunters, and could not mix with the world, they want their children to step out of the lake through education and probably bring better development to their community in the nearest future. “The youths will leave the lake community if there are no incentives to living. We need them and have to keep them by bringing what they see on land to the lake,” Aboude, a community leader, says while cheering us and offering permission to take his picture from his boat.

Another wonder is the borehole where fresh water is supplied to the lake community; while the lake water is not potable, beneath it is fresh water. When we ride across a street, a hotel catches our attention. It is one of the biggest edifices on the lake and we see guests enjoying at the open bar.

I also see a few domesticated land animals and ask how they survive on water. The boat rider, who is a local, says the animals maintain live on plots of grass that spring up from the water. He explains further that the lake community does not have a good supply of domesticated animals hence relies on a complicated network of underwater fencing to corral and farm various fish populations.

Sadly and inevitably, people die. In Ganvie, the leaders are making effort to sand fill an additional portion on the water near the school for use as cemetery because Ganvie also buries her dead.

The over-hours ride on the lake is a pleasurable experience, as well as, gives a glimpse of vibrant and colourful lives of the local people.

At the end of the tour, the most unique souvenir to buy is fish; whether dry or fresh, it tells that you truly visited Ganvie and also impacted the local economy. Moreover, photographs taken during the tour of the village are good souvenirs as well, but should be used to convince friends to visit the lake village.

Looking at the future, the village, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List on October 31, 1996 in the Cultural category, hopes to receive double the number of tourists it hosts now by the time it is listed among World Heritage Sites.


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