01 Feb Africanness (The Republic of Benin)
I visited the Republic of Benin as part of my tour of Francophone Africa, I arrived in the country on the tenth day of January, when I landed in the Cardinal Bernadin Gantin de Cotonou International Airport, I expected the country to be welcoming and she was. it helped that I was already acquainted with one of her indigenes; Oronce, the photographer I had met in Cote d’Ivoire. Oronce’s nickname amongst his friends is “Enjoyment Minister,” and he stayed true to that name throughout the five days I stayed in in Benin, on the second night of my visit, Oronce organized a dinner with his friends, some of which were visiting for the Voodoo festival like me, while the others were locales. We ate, talked, partied, laughed and danced; the sound of Afrobeat songs heavy in the air for most of the night, this is the type of music the indigenes of the country enjoy, together with their local music which is also very similar to afrobeats. The particulars of that night will never escape my mind, even as I danced I knew- in that way that you long for a thing that is present but you know won’t last long- that I would miss this place more than any of the other countries I have visited. I cannot forget; Ariane Agbo, Linda Adjagodo, Cedric Ajavon, Oronce Hounkponou, Adé Okelarin, Gracious, Foumi, and all the others I met that night. It is funny sometimes how people can reach deep enough that they touch your soul within such a short time of knowing them.
The fashion of the Benin people is similar to the Nigerian Yoruba’s with the beautiful and diverse Ankara prints and the occasional ceremonial gele for women and Filá for the men. French is predominantly spoken among the indigenes along with several other local languages such as; Fon-gbe, Goun, Mina, Idaacha, Dendi, and Bariba. I left the Republic of Benin on the Fifteenth Day of January because the time for my visit had come to an end, but it’s my new happy place and would love to visit again and again.
In the short five days I stayed there, Benin, made me see how very easy it is to become ignorant of the beauty the earth holds, to become so used to seeing it that you forget it’s even there especially when you stay in the same place for a long time. This is one of the things that traveling has taught me; to appreciate beauty even in its smallest forms. It is harder for me to be ignorant of unfamiliar beauty, even if it’s just a change in the color of the sand, I see it clearly because I have left my cares behind for this; to be intoxicated by nature and all the gifts she bears.
It is grossly underrated; the therapeutic abilities of nature, how the sounds and smells of the sea coaxes your mind into a state of peace and serenity even when that isn’t your reality. Our world as we know it is becoming all about money and fame, everyone wants to wear the most expensive labels even the people that travel do so only to take pictures, they miss out on all the things that really matter, I would trade money any day for the sounds of waves crashing into each other to become my continuous reality, to wake up to the taste of salt on my lips (not to be unrealistic, there would have to be food in my stomach to enjoy these things, so finding a balance is what I crave most). It is amazing how many colours water could come in, even the sky with its clouds appears in a different colour in every country, it is hard to deny that there is a divine entity at work when you see and feel these things.
It is obvious to me now, that whatever hands formed the world, did so with human joy in mind, we are supposed to be one with the earth, to bless it as it blesses us, to allow ourselves be seduced by all its wonders, but most of us never get to experience this, we spend our lives chasing validation from a world that would very easily return us to the earth when we died.
Travelling gives me new eyes so that even when I go back to the Country where I live, my everyday routine becomes new and fresh again, I walk the streets and I’m aware of the sun on my neck and the air in my nostrils, I feel like a child again, conscious of life, curious of all of it. Benin made me see what it means to be a child and how as adults, we often forget to live.
I and my team were kayaking through a river in Benin called the black river; it was thus named because looking at it, the water appears black to the eyes, we bumped into some teenagers bathing on our way, at first we assumed they were boys because of their shaved heads but on getting closer, it was obvious that they were girls, they waved at us with wide excited smiles on their faces, there was no sign of shame or concern for their bodies. It struck me then how, in our growing up, we have imbibed shame, fear, worry and all the things that make life taste bitter on our tongue.
I cannot fail to mention the animals, the elephants, giraffes, and all the others, the beauty in their different shapes and sizes. It often strikes me how humans, although scientifically proven to be the dominant species, lack the basic human instincts that animals possess, we don’t speak a common language yet, there is understanding, they recognize pain, fear, desire and respond accordingly. All animals, even the ones that are not friendly to humans, understand the language of comfort and loyalty; it brings to my mind, Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist in which, Santiago, the Shepard boy speaks about a language without words, the language of the world. It will do us more good as humans, to imitate animals in these things, to be able to feel one another’s pain and be forthright in our commitments. It is our inability as human beings to be truly empathetic – to put ourselves as much as we can into the shoes of others- that makes the world into all the evil it is today.
I cannot say that I have become an expert of nature and the language she speaks but I know that it would help you to breath easier if you stopped for a while every day, to take in the beauty around you, the life of it, the smells and sounds, even in those places you think that no beauty resides, there is new life waiting to burst forth and embrace you. One doesn’t need to travel the world to know that there is a home under a tree for everyone.
Being in The Republic Of Benin also made me realize how much Africa was drowning in the concept of religion. I have always thought of religion as a sham, something forced on us by our colonial master in exchange for our originality, religion in African countries today has become an excuse for mediocrity, people pray instead of working and a sick person would very readily be taken to a church than to a hospital for necessary treatment. This same sort of extremist behavior has escalated into evil beliefs such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, etc. One thing that Africa as a continent fails to understand is that religion is not spirituality, putting other people down for their beliefs is not God’s work. It is overwhelming to see today how religion in Africa has become cancer, churches open just to get rich of people’s naivety and their search for a higher power outside of themselves.
It saddens me when I think of all the art that was called heathen and taken from our Fathers by the white man, these pieces are now displayed in museums all over the world and we have no claim to them. In Benin, I saw how the country kept to her roots, her spiritual heritage wasn’t a thing of shame, it was put on grand display for days at the voodoo festival, a festival done originally with a touch of modern style; Masquerades, deities, chants, magic and many of African indigenous beliefs and ways are showcased and it’s reality relays one’s soul back to what Africa used to be.
There are very few African countries that still have this kind of culture, most of our heritage are now counted as abominations, we gave our indigenous art over to the white man to be destroyed but now they display it in their museums while we carry high the cross they gave us to bend our backs. Africa would be a much better place, of we stopped being ashamed of what we are if we embraced the image of us that the earth remembers. Civilization is not the absence of cultural heritage but for the ability to harness it and be productive with these tools that are readily available to us.
We passed through Porto Novo and got to Ouidah, formerly the kingdom Of Whydah, it is a city on the coast of the Republic Of Benin. When we got there, we headed straight to The Door of No Return; a memorial arch in Ouidah, It is a concrete and bronze arch, which stands on the beach, as a memorial to the enslaved Africans who were taken from the slave port of Ouidah to the Americas. Near the arch is the first Catholic Church built by the colonial masters, the abandoned building although roofless, stood proudly as if it had chosen solitude for itself as if visitors were a luxury it could forgo. Seeing this structure made me feel some type of righteous anger, I could picture what the church would have looked like years ago, with indigenes of the city walking in- in their newly acquired western clothes, that I am sure made them uncomfortable at first- to worship a God that had been forced down their throats by men who saw them as inferior to themselves, It was unnerving to me, to see that even years after the church had been last used, it still stood with some of the condescending dignity that it possessed in those years, apart from the musty damp smell of the place, a few missing doors, and some fire damage, it looked like a movie set, like a place waiting for life to happen to it again. This structure to me symbolized all that the white man did to Africa, he came with the promise of better and bigger things but left our continent in the same state that this abandoned church building was; Empty, isolated and boasting of past achievements.