“GANVIÉ is one of Benin’s premier tourist attractions,” states a travel guide to West Africa. Says another: “Africans themselves are fascinated by Ganvié; you’ll see as many African tourists as westerners.”
Ganvié is indeed unique. It is a village of 15,000 inhabitants that is built on stilts above the waters of Lake Nokoué, north of Cotonou, Benin. In Ganvié, there are no bicycles, no cars, no sidewalks, and no roads. If residents want to go to school, the market, the health clinic, a neighbor’s home, or anywhere else, they climb into a canoe carved from an iroko tree.
Most families have several canoes—one for Father, one for Mother, and sometimes one for the children. Children learn to row early. By five years of age, a child can manage a boat alone. Soon he or she is confident enough to stand in a canoe to throw a small fishing net. Some youngsters enjoy showing off for visitors by performing headstands in their canoes.
At Ganvié’s floating market, merchants, mostly women, sit in their canoes with their goods piled high in front of them—spices, fruits, fish, medicine, firewood, beer, and even radios. Shaded from the tropical sun by straw hats with huge brims, they sell to others who paddle their canoes there to buy. Sometimes the sellers are young girls. Do not be deceived by their age! They learn early the trader’s art of shrewd negotiation.
While the women buy and sell at the market, the men concern themselves with fishing, or fish farming to be more precise. Their method of catching fish involves poking hundreds of branches into the muddy lagoon bottom, which creates a dense stick forest. The fish swarm to feed on the decomposing branches. After some days the men return with their nets to harvest the fish.
From Hideout to Tourist Attraction
The Toffinu of Ganvié were not always the “People of the Water,” as they are known today. Early in the 18th century, they fled to the lake and swamps to escape persecution by a neighboring African kingdom. Scholars say that the name Ganvié reflects this history, since in the Toffin language, the word gan can be translated “we are saved” and the word vie means “community.” Thus, the name of this capital of lake townships might be loosely translated “the community of people who have found peace after all.”
Seeking escape in the swampy region around Lake Nokoué was an effective strategy, since the religious beliefs of the opposing kingdom did not permit any soldier to venture into the water or areas liable to flooding. So the lake provided both a means of livelihood and a place of refuge from the enemy. It is ironic that this now famous community, which multitudes of tourists visit in motorboats, was once a place of hiding.