BENIN: the Forgotten Kingdom of Dahmey & the Present Day Republic of Benin

Apr 14, 2021  By James Nabwangu

My overriding ambition has always been to engage the world and those who populate it through photography. During this wonderful journey, my wife and I have dealt with challenges that would fill a lifetime. We shall continue to photograph because by doing so we become keenly aware of being alive and part of humanity. Photography speaks to us in a  way nothing else does. In a world so divided as we are witnessing today, we firmly believe photography has the power and ability to shine a light on whatever is good and still present in all of us, as we hope, pray, and strive for some reconciliation that is fundamental to the survival of the human species.

We seem to be condemned to live out the rest of our lives searching for the holy grail to the origins of mankind. Having been born in Kenya, the African cradle of our human race has a special impact and relevance to my way of thinking. Benin, in particular, has been of particular interest. First, as the epicenter of the inhuman Slave Trade per- petrated from such places as Ouidah, and secondly, the origins of ancient religious practices and spiritual beliefs that comprise Voodoo.

We did finally set out earlier this year to travel to Benin, engage with the people, learn about their rich history (dark moments and all), and more importantly, show them photographically as they go about their daily lives. This was to be a project from which we hoped to learn a great deal about the ancient Kingdoms of Dahomey and the present day inhabitants of the modern day Republic of Benin. We hoped to travel down the path from the place of the Slave Market in the center of town in Ouidah to the Beach through the Gate of No Return. While the slaves knew where they had come from, none knew where they were going and many would have preferred to commit suicide rather than be forced to endure the inhuman conditions, pestilence, rapes and sometimes death on the high seas and afterward. The five day march in chains from Abomey to Ouidah was just the start to their horror and nightmare. One day we hope to make that trek. Four weeks allotted to this project weren’t long enough. Meanwhile, we did make it to other places.

Armed with our Leica cameras and assorted lenses, our arrival into Cotonou with no preconceived ideas had its moments. Even though my wife and I are no strangers to Africa, there was a bit of a culture shock. Everything was different, for example, there was no scent of the jacaranda blooms that would be commonplace in my motherland. Benin is one of the poorest countries in Africa and yet the people were friendly, helpful and happy, despite the lack of material things, insufficient access to healthcare and poor infrastructure. Fortunately, we both speak French and English. Unbeknownst to us, the scourge of COVID-19 was just starting and well on its way to becoming a pandemic. We received a timely email from the consulate in Cotonou to reconsider our planned trip further north. Security issues existed near the border with Niger in Pendjari National Park in northern Benin where, seven months before our arrival, several European tourists had been kidnapped, their guide and two French commandos killed in the ensuing rescue effort. Islamists were active in those areas. Photography was therefore limited to the southern parts of the countryside villages and around the five cities of Cotonou, Porto Novo, Grand Popo, Abomey and Ouidah.

Despite slavery being abolished, and Benin being a functional democracy, the historical importance of Ouidah as a slave-trading outpost is hard to overlook. For centuries, the kingdom was at the epicenter of slave shipments from the Bight of Benin, exploited by the Portuguese in the 1580s, followed by the Dutch, French and English. Incidentally, slaves from Africa were delivered to Jamestown, Virginia for the very first time in 1619. Clotilda, the last slave ship carrying one hundred and nine men, women and children was able to leave Ouidah in 1860 and evade the British while bound for Alabama in the United States. Cudjo Lewis gave an account of that harrowing passage in 1972. The descendants of those captives can still be found in Africatown, Alabama.

The immensely lucrative slave trade started to wind down after a blockade against the practice by the British in 1852. The Kingdom became a French colony in 1872 and then a protectorate in 1892. The country subsequently came to be known as Benin with full independence (1960) and the name change later to the modern day Republic of Benin in 1975.

Modern day Benin is only slightly smaller than Pennsylvania. Fon, Yoruba, Dendi and French are the dominant languages. Even though not many will own up to it, the fact remains that the vast majority are Voodoo believers. As with most things in life, there have been some expropriation of customs and aspects of Catholicism and surprisingly, vice versa. Voodoo is a vital aspect of life in Benin and every year, the 10th of January is a National Holiday when Festivals are held throughout the land. Our plan was to be in Benin on that date. Less than twenty-four hours after our arrival in Cotonou, we sat down with Romuald Hazoumé, one of the most acclaimed contemporary African artists, who gave us a two hour exposé on life, culture, religion, the economy, as well as the history of his homeland dating back to the existence of the Kingdom of Dahomey that lasted from 1600 to 1904. Presiding over the Voodoo festivities is the “Pope” as well his retinue of priests, and followers. The Ingungun, the spiritual returnees occupying physical human bodies, were also present in many parts of the country. Supplicants were present at Voodoo shrines and during the festivities a fair amount of alcohol was consumed as people danced and sometimes fell into trances.

Through the lens, we were to observe the country’s open air markets, roadside vendors of food and gasoline as well as mosques and even Voodoo places of worship. Agriculture is a main occupation and internal trade and commerce appeared to be dominated by women. This we found interesting since there was another time when the Dahomey Kings relied on fearsome women soldiers who were later known as the Amazons who even fought against the French at the time of colonization. Cooking is normally done outside and people appear well-fed. Rice, manioc, corn, tapioca, fruits and palm wine are readily and widely available.

Gasoline Transport, Benin Leica M10 & 28mm Summilux-M ASPH. at f/2.8, 1/180, ISO 200

During our time in Benin, we felt that we had managed to connect with the locals, for the most part, to photograph them unless they objected, of course. Dominique Hazoumé did a superb job of helping us bond with the ordinary citizens of his country. That was our objective from the very start. We visited such fascinating places as Lake Nokoue, also known as the “Venice of Africa”, where houses are built on stilts and people get around on pirogues which function as water taxis. We also visited open air markets, pottery production cooperatives, red palm oil and alcohol production communities, as well as charcoal makers, fishermen and a Voodoo shrine or two. In addition, we spent time with sculptors and painters. The Abomey museum and the previous seat of the Dahomey Empire is of immense historical importance. A curious aspect of life is the transport of petrol from Nigeria on motorcycles frequently through clandestine entry points. We spent time on the Black River with these motorcycle riders, their bikes dangerously loaded down with numerous jerrycans of petrol. Some have been known to have been killed when during an accident, a small spark sets off a major explosion resulting in casualties. As a result of this trade, gasoline stations as we know them here in America, no longer exist in Porto Novo. Petrol is sold roadside from bottles and jars.

As for the images presented here and regarding travel, we can only wholeheartedly agree with what others have said.

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