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Entries about benin

Tourists In the Way

Sometimes, we should probably just let locals be locals and stay out of their way...

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No Photos, Please

No Photos, Please

Some places like tourists, some places need tourist. And some places resent tourists. This is, of course, a generalisation. Areas are made up of individuals. Persons who have vastly different opinions about tourists. Some people make a lot of money from tourists. Others are proud of their cultural heritage and happy to show it to visitors. Others again think the influx of foreigners and money is altering their community for the worse or too fast, and sometimes it’s simply fairly annoying that people come and insist on taking people’s photo, while they are just trying to go about their daily business. But somehow, the sentiments that tend to be domination a given community tend to be in either one or the other end of the scale.

Tea time in the desert

Tea time in the desert

I’ve been visiting just about every type of place on this trip, and there are just about two general rules of thumb. The fewer visitors to a place, the happier will the local population be to see you. And the more the local individuals are part of the attraction, the less happy will they be to see you. I don’t blame them. Loads of tourists and travellers invade certain small areas of this world on a daily basis. Imagine being treated more like an attraction than a human being. Whether that is being a Maya Indian, a Tibetan monk or an African villager still living the traditional life.

Jumping on to a boat

Jumping on to a boat

Travellers and tourists (or the tour companies) make a load of money and social capital on these people. Granted – I make little money from my photos, though I do make some. But I do make a shit load of social capital projecting myself to the world as an experience and hardcore bad-ass traveller who goes where no-one else dares to venture... or… At least that’s what I like to think I do.

We – travellers and tourists – do so, without any form of appreciation to the people we often snap photos of. Way too many of us don’t even bother chatting to people before taking their picture. Too many of us don’t even ask if it’s all right with the people we’re snapping away at. It shouldn’t surprise that people in touristy places – particularly when the tourists are a lot richer than the locals – are asking for money if their picture is taken.

Village kid, Liberia

Village kid, Liberia

In general, I’ve been received everywhere with a mix of positive shock, open arms and a lot of offers to buy all sorts of crap. No exceptions. But some people and places just stand out as exceptionally friendly. The old man in upcountry Liberia who led me sleep in his village house when our car broke down in the middle of nowhere. The young guy in northern Burkina Faso who ended up paying my guesthouse bill for two nights. Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau as a whole.

Sahara Trek

Sahara Trek

Then there were the places that used to have a lot of tourism, but where it have all but disappeared because of political instability in the Sahel. In Mauritania’s desert region, a man invited me to stay with him for free and pay nothing for the three meals a day I received (except a few voluntary contributions). His hospitality paid off as I used him as my middleman in setting up a five-day Sahara Desert trek. Obviously, it’s possible to question whether his hospitality was genuine, but it was a win-win situation, with both of us coming out on the other side happy.

Dogon Country

Dogon Country

On another five-day trek, in Mali’s Dogon Country, I got to experience a place where a lot of people had been sceptical towards tourists when we first showed up. But as tourism suddenly dried up, they had realised how much it meant for the local economy. The Dogon’s are very conservative and traditional people, and they had had tiny contact with the outside world as late as the 1970’s. So the massive influx of tourists that began in the early 2000’s was received with some unease.

Dogon hunter

Dogon hunter

However, every hostel is locally owned, and there’s a small fee to be paid to every village visited. For a population who live off farming, primarily onions, the extra income counted for a lot. Plenty of people told me how happy they were to see me, and hoped that more tourists would return soon – even though they hadn’t been euphoric about them previously. The reason was simply. Tourists had a major impact on standards of living and had turned out to be of rather uninfluential on their traditional culture.

Stilt village of Ganvié

Stilt village of Ganvié

Lastly, here in Benin, I’ve hit places where tourists are less than welcome. First in a stilt village called Ganvié. It’s right outside Cotonou, so just about every foreigner in the country – even if they have time to see only one thing in Benin, go to Ganvié. It’s a short boat ride from town, and the Ministry of Tourism has set up a large departure platform. With government officials controlling the flow of tourists, I suspect that there isn't much tourist revenue going to the Ganvié community. They are busy fishing and getting on with their lives. I doubt they even asked for the tourist influx.

Tourists

Tourists

It doesn’t help that the only way to get around in the village is by boat. That makes it impossible to walk up to someone and ask if it’s okay to take their picture – so many visitors just snap as many photos they can before someone begins to yell that they should stop. The fact that most boats are steered by young boys, who’s inexperience makes it difficult for them to control the boat (but I’m sure they’re cheap labour), and guides who put pressure on them to finish the pre-planned tour quickly (so they can take another couple of paying visitors out to the village) only contribute further to the distance between locals and visitors.

Royal castle gate

Royal castle gate

The other place in Benin was at the temples and royal house in Abomey. The temples are still active places of traditional (pagan) worship, and royal families still live in some of their houses. It’s not surprising that people here prefer to live and pray in peace. However, here are plenty of signs making it clear which buildings that can be photographed or visited and which that can’t. However, even the buildings with "no photo" signs can be snapped. It just requires the visitor to show a minimum amount of respect. Find the house owner or priest, ask politely, and pay the small amount they ask for if they ask for any. Then it’s pretty easy to get a tour of the premise or snap as many photos as you’d like.

Making friends

Making friends

That’s pretty much it. With simple respect, taking an active interest in peoples' lives, and sometimes – just sometimes – move a little bit of cash from the wealthy tourist to the not-so-wealthy local, pretty much anyone will be welcomed. And if you don’t want to pay for the privilege, don’t get in the way of local life and don’t assume that people will be happy to be part of your vacation photo albums.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:25 Archived in Benin Tagged culture travel locals tourist tourists travellers responsible travelling respect west_africa benin togo photographying Comments (0)

Voodoo Country

Zombies, voodoo dolls to annoy your worst enemy, and enough animal sacrifices to turn PETA inside out. How can this not end fantastically badly?

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The witch doctor

The witch doctor

"Now, say your first name out loud three times," said the witch doctor, "then say your last name out loud three times after that." As I did so, while moving the amulet towards my chest every time I spoke, the voodoo doctor ferociously shook his calabash rattled and mumbled indecipherable words in Ewe. I was buying a small charm for good travel luck at a smallish voodoo market in Togo. As a side effect, the amulet would also make it impossible for people to poison me. Apparently, I was told, the witch doctors only awaken the power of the amulets, and sometimes, some amulets have multiple functions. I mean, it’s not like they’re making this stuff up… right?

The slave trade

The slave trade

Voodoo is probably best known from Brazil, the Caribbean – especially from Haiti – and New Orleans. However, it’s not native to the Americas but stems from the West African coast around what is today Togo, Benin and western Nigeria. The voodoo rituals were brought to the Americas on board slave ships in the 16th and 17th centuries, with many captured slaves from the voodoo region in West Africa ending up in Haiti and Brazil. Don’t tell me that Globalisation is a new phenomenon.

These slaves brought with them their rituals, but Voodoo wasn’t a full-flung Religion (with a capital R) until it got mixed with Catholicism. This is also why voodoo tends to be misunderstood as a practice of black magic. ‘The light’ (aka. white magic) is solely the domain of God’s miracles (more totally not made up stuff). Other myths about voodoo include both zombies and the classical voodoo dolls, full of pins (damn!).

Voodoo dolls

Voodoo dolls

While zombies have featured in rural Haitian culture and mythology, they’re not connected to voodoo. Even less so to the voodoo of West Africa. While dulls, know in West Africa as fetishes or nkisi, are used as part if voodoo rituals their usage have nothing to do with the pin poking practices. That seems to be solely a matter of Western imagination inspired not by African traditions, but from old British practices, where dolls were poked to make other people suffer (Hutton, 1999).

Dried money heads

Dried money heads

Voodoo practices and witch doctors have more in common with spiritual practices and medicine men, which is found all over West Africa, than with ‘black magic’. Voodoo dolls, for example, are used to keep good spirits in, and to protect villages and houses from bad spirits, or as portals to the family ancestors. Likewise, most of the dead and dried animals seen on voodoo markets are crushed into powder and then mixed with water and herbs to cure all kinds of ailments and sicknesses. To my surprise, these shakes aren’t for drinking. Instead, you wash with the water for the treatment to work. A huge disappointment for me personally, as I had been looking forward to drinking dried snake mixed with powdered crocodile…

Lomé's voodoo market

Lomé's voodoo market

All this keeping sickness at bay, protecting against evil spirits and bad luck, and communicating with family ancestors are considered good deeds. Just as we find the work of a hospital doctor for good deeds. Thus, tourists are told this is "white magic". That is not to say that "black magic" is unheard of here. While the witchdoctors refuse to perform "black magic" for tourists who just want a cheap laugh, both spirits and medicaments can be used to create bad luck or even sickness and death for people. For local peoples here in West Africa, this has nothing to do with magic. Spirits, to their minds, are as real as gravity is to ours. And even I, a sceptic, wouldn’t rule out that some herbs and other natural medicines could have some effect

One of the most dramatic examples of the use of spirits for evil is when human traffickers smuggle young women to Europe and force them into prostitution. One of the ways dealers keep these women quite – there’s plenty of physical abuse involved too – is by casting evil spells on them that will result in great harm to themselves and their families should they try to escape. Physiological abuse if you will.

Hat souvenir

Hat souvenir

Back at the voodoo market, I simply opted for a small amulet, made of herbs rather than dead animals. Getting some extra travel luck doesn’t really seem necessary since I’ve survived so far and the trip is nearing its end. The fact that I don’t believe in shaking a rattle over some herbs is going to do anything for my luck doesn’t help either. But it was the only way to see the witch doctor doing his thing. At least it makes a good souvenir – and it has the bonus that I can attach it to my travel hat…

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Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University

Posted by askgudmundsen 02:51 Archived in Togo Tagged travel market travellers travelling doctor west_africa voodoo haiti benin togo vodou lomé witch_doctor black_magic Comments (0)

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