The Venice of Africa


 An incredible continent and a fascinating melting pot of cultures. The history of mankind and the irrational evolution of certain groups being what they are, many of this ancient continent’s beautiful countries are inaccessible these days.

The word “inaccessible” is not strong enough and by no means encapsulates the tragedy that this represents for humanity itself. Rich civilisations here are being allowed to disappear. Precious knowledge is being lost forever. Populations, older than we could ever imagine, are treated with shocking indifference.

By cowardly turning a blind eye, we have favoured our own comfortable Western ways of living to the detriment of the richness and diversity of humanity.

However, in the face of this apparent disconcerting fate, there are pockets here and there that have been preserved – places rich with local people, rich with culture, rich with beliefs and rich with unique differences. It’s by travelling to ancestral lands, such as you find only in Africa, that you realise just how crazy globalisation is. It’s like an untameable giant octopus spreading out its tentacles across the world, devouring unique differences and diversity just to regurgitate ready-made ways of thinking with no history or soul.

With that in mind, I disembark in Cotonou, under the kind of starry sky you won’t find anywhere else but here. The sticky, muggy heat contrasts heavily with the glacially dry air inside the plane. My ears are overwhelmed with the deafening sound of the nocturnal wildlife. My nose is invaded with the smell of burnt timber and tropical trees. The terminal is lit up with neon lights, and several tired soldiers with AK47s strapped to their shoulders greet us with beaming smiles. In windowless tents, you can hear the border police having a friendly laugh with the impatient travellers.

You feel extremely welcome in Benin, but I won’t be here more than a few days. It’s not by my own choosing, it’s just that I only have a couple of days left. Five to be precise. I don’t like staying at home knowing that there’s an entire planet out there just waiting to be explored! So here I am! I swiftly pass through the various administrative posts without any issues and then hop on the shuttle to my hotel. I tell the driver that I’m concerned about the weather for the next few days. Never expect a certain or definitive answer from an African about something as unpredictable as the weather. When you come to Africa, you have to bear in mind that here, common sense, logic and frankness are the most common values! So he replies by simply telling me that the weather has been lovely today. I’ll just have to wait until tomorrow like everyone else then. I’ll be able to open my window in the early hours to see what the weather is doing! Or I’ll check online if the Internet is working, but there’s not much else you can be less certain about!

As luck would have it, the Internet is working! The weather tomorrow looks good. Then thunderstorms after thunderstorms and heavy tropical rain. I actually have to get to the lake village of Ganvié, via the mangroves, so on a pirogue (dugout canoe). I’ve got a dilemma….but it’s one I solve very quickly. I have already experienced Ganvié under clear blue skies. So why not enjoy this sunny day and spend some time by the pool and enjoy the tropical laid-back way of life? I think to myself that the lake village must be a very different place to be during tropical rainfall. I’ve made my decision: I’m going to take it easy and laze around tomorrow. I’ll do my rain-soaked pirogue expedition the day after.

For many photographers, taking your equipment out in the rain takes some serious, careful thought. Even if you have tropicalised equipment, you usually still tend to be nervous, and often rightly so.

However, I have my GH5 and some great Leica lenses (100-400 and 12-60) with me. They have all been tropicalised using the most effective procedures according to Panasonic. I ask to check. I got a satisfying preview in Namibia but where I’m headed you get tropical rainfall….brightness will be heavily impaired and to top it all I’ll be in a fragile little pirogue. It’s seriously going to put the stabilisation and raised ISO sensitivity to the test. In short, like all photographers, I’m thinking about the photo shoot and bearing in mind that nothing ever goes as planned. So, I drink a nice beer by the pool and enjoy the clear night sky then head off to bed covered in a thousand mosquito bites…

My alarm goes off at 08:00. Nothing starts too early in Africa. And nothing gets done faster than is strictly necessary. The secret behind the perpetual smile that you see on people’s faces here is perhaps precisely just that!  Yesterday, between two dips in the pool, I met a guide. He lives in Ganvié, and his family has always lived here. He’s a really nice guy.

My equipment is ready and I’ve checked that I haven’t forgotten my suitcase, my waterproof Lowepro backpack or my faithful K-WAY poncho bought in Ho Chi Minh City several years ago for a few Vietnamese Dong. The weather is atrocious. I’m delighted.

After an hour travelling along a very poorly maintained road under torrential rainfall, we finally arrive at the jetty. Tens of pirogues that have come from the lake village are berthing at the modest dock in order to sell last night’s catch in the town. These same pirogues will depart again full of an array of essentials needed for life back on the lagoon.

I greet the pirogue pilot, we exchange a few pleasantries and then we’re ready to go.

But before we leave he has one final piece of advice for me. In Ganvié there are three main religions practised by the 30,000 folk who live on the water: Christianity, Islam and Voodoo. The Voodooists have very specific beliefs and do not really like to be photographed. I should therefore be discrete and of course respect their wishes to be left alone. So, I attach my 100-400 lens to my camera and get ready for taking some long-distance shots. As luck would have it, the trees and vegetation aren’t too tall here. It will be easy for me to capture people’s faces and take snapshots of their lives without being noticed from low down in my pirogue…

And the rain is falling down like you’ve never seen before.

Well, there’s something I hadn’t really factored in…it’s no use being over-prepared for a shoot! Once again, things won’t turn out the way they were meant to!  The rain is making it impossible to use autofocus, which insists on trying to focus on the drops which are as big as beads. Adjusting the focus manually is terribly time-consuming as well. And at 400 mm, it’s a pretty technical and fiddly process as well. So I do the only thing I can, given the situation! I take a deep breath and accept the rules of the game set by mother nature herself. I take myself off to the bow of the pirogue, assess the light, embrace the ambiance, and accept the atmosphere as the fragile little boat enters the part of Africa which is the birthplace of Voodoo. Manual adjustment is definitely a slower process but not so painful after all. What’s more, the pirogue is now stable and the pilot has anticipated my request to slow down. The whole situation is very different to what I witnessed when it was sunny. It was a good decision to come in the rain.

People’s faces are really expressive. I laugh when I see the angry faces of some of the locals who live on the water but seem to really hate the rain. They’re not unlike Parisians deep down. They’re getting irritated, are cursing and seem to have lost the ability to navigate the water! Amongst all of that, some people notice me and give me uneasy looks and make spell-like gestures that seem far from welcoming. To say that they don’t like being photographed would be putting it mildly. It’s tough being a photographer!

The rules of the game are complicated. I should have had at least 20 curses put on me, but my guide, who is such a caring chap, had real foresight. He had the presence of mind to bring a protective talisman with him in order to protect us from any ill will of this kind which is, according to him, totally harmless. Who knows?

Then we arrive in the village of Ganvié, the point of departure and arrival for these small fleets of flimsy skiffs loaded up with everything that allows this floating population to get by. It feels so strange being here, standing on this old tub that isn’t really all that watertight, in the middle of the other side of the world. The dark sky also adds a touch of fascinating theatricality to the whole thing. There is very little or no electricity here. Also, the insides of the makeshift dwellings, perched on thin stilts, are gloomy, even dark. Inquisitive faces appear in the openings to observe this strange man that I must seem to them. Some of the children shout to greet me before scarpering and hiding out of the view of my camera. The rain has eased off a little and I’ve reverted to autofocus. The GH5 is fast. What’s even better is that it is as fast as the people here are stealthy.

We start a long and delicate journey through Ganvié. Like all villages on this planet, when the sky irrigates the ground with this beneficial fresh water, life moves at a slow speed. People are only doing what is strictly necessary. Over here, there’s a woman taking advantage of this influx of clean water to wash her linen. Over there, there’s a man repairing the motor of his pirogue under the shelter of a house. He is a well-off inhabitant as the others only have oars to propel them. A bit further away, a child in uniform is piloting a pirogue loaded with classmates with impressive skills.

Life in Ganvié is like life anywhere else on our surprising little planet. It is just organised differently. Thinking about it, all these people arrived here by crossing the water, stepping on crocodiles. All to escape the armies of the king who had no regard for their well-being. Seeing them standing in the water, demonstrating such dexterity, I am in no doubt about the truthfulness of such stories.

It is difficult to remain discrete in the urban density of what people here call “the Venice of Africa”. So I decide to hide low down in my little boat, with my buttocks in the water and the petrol. It must be a good 30 degrees and this position is not in the slightest bit comfortable! But you do what you have to do, don’t you? And the rain starts to fall again which is nice. The drops on the smooth surface of the mangroves give the whole thing a wonderfully textured dimension. The faces, seeking refuge under the coloured fabrics, are beautiful like gems in a jewellery box. Ganvié is a paradise for photojournalists. Even though I know that this ever-present rain has certainly given me as many wonderful photos as absolutely failed clichés! It’s all part of the infamous rules of the game!

So I return back to the hotel in the late afternoon, happy with how the day went and impatient to discover what treasures await on my memory card.

But first of all I need a nice hot shower and a nice cold beer comfortably sat under the cover of the beach bar, safely protected from the rain. That’s how things roll in Africa: calmly, deliciously and without any stress.

When you spend time here, there are things that you learn by necessity. Obvious things that our Western civilisations have simply forgotten. One such thing is knowing how to enjoy your life. Knowing how to contemplate the simple, insignificant things, like the people of the floating village do when it rains. Like the barman at this beach bar is doing, having sat at my table to find out what work I’m doing on my computer. Like the man further away is doing on the porch of his sheet-metal house, with a “medicinal herbal” cigarette in his mouth, gazing at the ocean that he sees every single day without really getting to know it and without growing weary of his dreamlike curiosity. They have a saying here in Africa for people who feel haunted by time as if it were a hungry monster and who find themselves chasing an obscure aim with no real destination, just passing everything by: “You white folk have monsters, but we have time”.

Remember that, no matter the circumstances, problems or situation, you have to know how to slip and slide with time and go with the flow without putting up any resistance and you have to accept the rules of this game we call life. Only then will you be at one with the world around you, ready to extract its very essence. No photographer can claim to stop time without knowing how to take their own time. It is one of countless lessons in life and photography that Africa teaches you. I returned from Benin much richer and fulfilled than yesterday but not as rich or fulfilled as tomorrow.