Venice is an ancient and beautiful place, very familiar to most people through visits or media. This watery wonder has an air of romance about it that nobody can deny, but it is not the only city on the water. The African continent has a ‘Venice’ of its own, which is equally mystical.
Ganvié is a lake village lying in Lake Nokoué.. A community on stilts above the water near Cotonou, Benin with a population of around 20,000 people. Popularly referred to as the Venice of Africa, the lake city is a famous meeting point for fishermen, businessmen and clients and probably the largest lake village in Africa and as such is very popular with tourists.
Listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Ganvie is one of Benin’s tourist attraction sites with an average of 10,000 tourists visiting every year.
The meaning of the name Ganvié is “we survived”, and is a reminder of events centuries ago that led to the founding of the village. Ganvié was created in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries by the Tofinu people who took to the lake to avoid Fon warriors capturing slaves for sale to European traders.
In the Fon religious beliefs, it was forbidden for any raiders to approach anyone living near water (or perhaps couldn’t swim), therefore making it a perfect escape and refuge for this group of Beninese people to create a safe community on water, the Ganvié villager are often referred to as “water men.”
Although the threat of slavery is only a distant memory. Over the generations they have grown accustomed to their unique lifestyle and have no desire to abandon it. Originally based on farming, the village’s main industries other than tourism are now fishing and fish farming.
Living in Ganvié
The village is completely sustainable as the people only go ashore to sell fish. They have their own restaurants, Churches, A mosque, Clinic, a few little hotels and very fashionable bars in Chez Raphael and Chez M, the ‘it’ places to hang around for the young and wealthy.
“Almost everything that is sold in the ordinary market, is found here. The market is very active from 4 am in the morning until noon. When fishing is successful, we are doing good business.”
said Gisele Dossou, a trader in the market.
The floating market where women in their small dugouts sell everything from fruits and vegetables to fabrics, hardware and pottery.
There is very little solid ground in Ganvie. The soil for it was brought by the villagers on their boats in order to build a proper school for the kids. And a cemetery for the spirits to rest peacefully in the ground after their whole life spent on the water.
Fish are cultivated and bred within the organic fishing farms. The fishermen trap and breed fish by using underwater fences made of bamboo and nets. These small-scale fish farms work very naturally. The fence rots and creates nourishment. The young fish go into the fishery through holes that are big enough to let them through.
They stay in until they are too big to leave and then the fisherman catch them. The lagoon is a huge brackish lake fed by the ocean tides, as well as by the major rivers of Benin. Along with the fish, the locals catch shrimp, crab, oysters and mussels.
On the way to Ganvie you can observe fish farms and fishers. People travelling back and forth to the shores of the lake in little boats. Pirogues carved from tree trunks, or ‘pinasse’, a motorised canoe.
The entire Ganvie has been built over water. Traditional and very colourful bamboo houses stand on stilts. Which need to be changed every year. Visiting a neighbour for a coffee or gossip requires a boat trip. The closest shore is several kilometers away.
Although there is a hotel on the lake, most visitors tend to come for a one day excursion or rather stay at hotels nearby and on land right next to the boarding boats. It is not because the hotels on the water aren’t accommodating. Rather, it is because many don’t find it pleasurable to adapt living on the lake. The amenities offered aren’t for everyone.
Visiting Ganvié is an experience out of the ordinary. Up to this day, this is the largest community known to live on water. Everything is conducted on the lake. Upon arrival, you will rent a boat that will take you around the lake and show you how life is lived in this community. There are lots of boats hand carved from wood trunks.
There’s no better way to enjoy the village than by drifting lazily in a pirogue with a local kid as your driver, wandering through the maze of tiny ‘alleys’ and circling picturesque houses. If you are craving for a life on water for a few days, the ‘Venice’ of Africa on Benin is a perfect destination to ad to your bucket list.