Tuesday, November 20, 2007


He reached Ouidah after an hour of travelling from Cotonou. It is an old settlement having been established in the 15th century by Ahoho who worship Dangbe the python. The air and relics speak of the legends from the past; of a shameful history that enriched the colonial powers of old Europe at the expense of millions of Africans. Ouidah was a slave trading post.

While the tourist bus wandered and the driver and the tour guide argued on where to go, he feasted on the flashing images of Ouidah: colonial designed houses with whitewashed walls of packed red earth, cobbled streets and neat little shops, ramrod straight and bare breast women walking and balancing heavy loads on their heads, the occasional Caucasian tourist in shorts and sandals and de rigueur camera. Then it popped out from nowhere, a beautiful anomaly in the movie he was watching.

The dominant and elegant Basilica of Ouidah is definitely French in the style of the Rheims Cathedral. He never knew it was there, and the suddenness of its appearance transformed the next moments into a surreal experience punctuated by the maniacal clicking of his Nikon D40. Until a hissing sound woke him from his moment of stupor. He felt the dry wind prodding him, outside the churchyard, across the street, to a decrepit enclosure. He found himself in an ancient Vodoun temple which the imposing Basilica failed to exorcise.

That is when he saw them: a bare young boy huddled in a dark corner with his almost naked mother and father. They started walking down the street, the man carrying his son and followed by his wife. He started walking too, amused at the eerie and light feeling that suddenly enveloped him but confused by his helplessness. He was led into the market where those that he followed disappeared into the maze of humanity before showing themselves again as they enter the gate of the Portuguese fort. He was drawn inside too, enjoying a moment of sanity in the shadows of an old chapel before going into a burst of fleeting exhilaration which transported him to a giant tree where he saw them again --- the man and his wife --- walking around, as if lost, as if in a soulless trance.

Then they picked the sleeping child and went their way, disappearing for moment in a patch of complete darkness, reappearing like ghosts, and continuing their journey until coming to another tree where they again performed the odd ritual of going around it. He was about to ask about the child who is no longer with them but a thousand tiny pythons came off his mouth as he tried to speak. That is when he saw the heavy manacles bruising their wrists and ankles, and the silent tears that poured from their empty eye sockets. They walked to the sea behind an invisible door that slammed the past behind them. Forever. The salty water parted to take them in. He strained his eyes to their journey until they disappeared. He felt cold…

PHOTOS (top to bottom):
(1) The Basilica of Ouidah was built in the early 20th century in front of (2) the Temple of Pythons where a Vodoun priest regularly commune with the spirit of Dangbe. The voodoo practice of the
Caribbean was introduced by slaves originating from what is now the Republic of Benin
(3) The chapel of the old Portuguese fort was built in 1856. The fort is one of the 5 that were built by the Portuguese, the French, English, Dutch and Danes as their slave trade posts. Only the Portuguese fort remained and when the newly independent state of Benin asked for a discussion of the fort’s status, the angry Portuguese burned it to the ground in 1961 during Benin’s first independence day celebration. It has been restored and is now the Historic Museum of Ouidah.
(4) The slaves would circle the Tree of Hope 3 times in the hope of coming back. It is the fifth stop in Ouidah’s La Route des Esclaves (The Route of Slaves) that commenced in the slave market where the slaves are sold, then the forts where they stayed in dark rooms called Zomais to prepare them for their sea journey to the Americas, then the Tree of Forgetfulness where they went around 9 times (7 times for the women) to symbolically forget everything about their origin. Those who will not survive are buried in the mass grave before the Tree of Hope.
(5) The Door of No Return leads to the ships that took the slaves across the Atlantic Ocean. (6) A voodoo temple now stands guard in the hallowed grounds of the Door of Nor return that has been declared as a UNESCO heritage site. Slavery was proposed by a priest and adviser to the Spanish court, Fr. Bartholome Las Cassas, to provide the labor for developing the New World of the Americas and was authorized by Pope Nicolas V on 08 January 1454. It was abolished in all of the English colonies in 1833, in all of the French colonies in 1848, in the United States in 1865, in Cuba in 1886, and in Brazil in 1888.
(7) A Beninese in a pensive mood along the Atlantic coast of the Door of No Return, as if waiting for those who went and never came back many years ago.
(8) Petrol or gas is sold on street stands like this beside a colonial era Beninese house in Ouidah.
(MAIN REFERENCE: Martin de Souza’s “Ouidah: A Bit of History”)

1 comment:

frank cimatu said...

oo, may sinulat si Chatwin tungkol sa Ouidah. Mukhang maganda nga. Yung deadline mo ha? Ha ha ha