Fresh from achieving her First Class Combined Honours in UWA Political Science & International Relations / French, having written a thesis on French-African relations, AfREC member Samantha Goerling undertook a study tour to Benin, West Africa. Samantha recounts the highlights of her trip here for AfricaNarratives.
The Ajalala in King Glèlè's palace, Abomey
During November-December 2018 I spent three weeks in Cotonou, the throbbing economic capital of the Republic of Benin in West Africa. This trip came to fruition thanks to the Rene Levy Memorial Travel Grant for French Studies, which aims to facilitate an Honours student studying French to undertake an intensive language course in a French-speaking country. I chose Benin, a narrow country between Nigeria and Togo on the Gulf of Guinea, where French has remained the official language after independence from France. Benin also featured in my Honours dissertation in Political Science and International relations, which focused on French-African security relations. The language classes were at the Moudachirou Language Centre, which specialises in French and English classes, translations and interpreting.
Outside of my morning classes, I could explore and experience the country. My visit was, for many of the Beninese I met, their first encounter with Australia, let alone an Australian. On one occasion the lady serving me in the post office called over her manager, not believing that Australia was a country and convinced I must mean Austria. I quickly began to feel like an Australian ambassador tasked with introducing my country. On one occasion, I presented a segment about all things Australia—economy, culture, history, sport—on national Beninese radio. On another occasion, I discussed Australia’s response to the AIDS epidemic as part of a World AIDS Day feature on national radio. During the visit I was also able to meet with representatives from the student radio stations and newspapers, laying the groundwork for potential future collaborations.
Northern Benin was off-limits during my stay due to the threats of terrorism and banditry, according to DFAT, however in my short stay I was instead able to experience a great amount of Southern Benin and Togo. The city of Abomey in Benin is a historical wonder and its multitude of royal palaces are UNESCO World Heritage-listed. From 1625-1900, Abomey was the home of twelve successive kings of the powerful Kingdom of Abomey.
Warring between kingdoms and the practice of capturing slaves from enemy kingdoms led to the creation of innovative safeguards. An underground village was built in Bohicon as a hideout for soldiers during the wars, and the village of Ganvié was built on stilts in the middle of Lake Nokoué. European colonial powers began to capitalise upon the slave trade and the evidence of this and pain in the country’s collective memory is still obvious today.
Ganvié, a city built on stilts in the middle of Lake Nokoué
The city of Ouidah is where slaves were traded and embarked on boats bound for the Americas, never to see their homeland again. Chilling reminders scatter the city: the tree where slaves were auctioned, the building where they would spend their last night, the Forgetting Tree (l’Arbre de l’Oublie) which they would circle to forget their past life, and finally the Gate of No Return, built as a memorial. There was, however, one group that did return to Benin; the descendants of slaves taken to Brazil, known in Benin as Afro-Brazilians. They brought back with them Portuguese culture, festivals and even architectural design, which can be seen in buildings scattered throughout cities like Ouidah.
‘Gate of No Return’, Ouidah
In addition, Ouidah offers a unique window into voodoo religions. Uninitiated visitors have the rare opportunity to enter a Python temple which, as the name suggests, is a religious site where pythons are worshipped. At the end of their life, the pythons are buried in a cemetery behind the temple. Missionaries were some of the first Europeans to make their way to this part of West Africa and opposite the Python Temple is the Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Today Christianity, Islam and Voodoo are all commonly practiced.
Inside the Python Temple in Ouidah
After independence from France in 1960, the colony became the Republic of Dahomey. Several army coups ensued and in 1975 The People’s Republic of Benin, a socialist state, was established. To this day a prominent monument inhabits Cotonou’s main roundabout, the Red Star, built by the Soviet Union in 1975. In 1990 the country transitioned to a democracy, becoming the Republic of Benin, and proceeded to lead a wave of democratic transitions in Francophone Africa. Following the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, a beach in Cotonou was named Obama Beach, to celebrate what those I spoke to recalled as a moment of both astonishment and joy in Benin.
This bustling and incredible trip gave me a plethora of unique experiences and a network of friendships and connections in Benin and Togo.
Samantha Goerling in Benin