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2023: Benin: Unseen West Africa

Key Information

Date: Sunday, January 8, 2023
Duration: 15 Days
Cost: Provisional £5180, $7250, €5950, AUD9360. Cotonou/Cotonou. Single Supplement: 2022: £280, $400, €330, AUD510.
Places: 6

This booking will be made through a third party website and will open a new tab when you press Book Now


Photographic Highlights

  • A truly comprehensive Benin photography tour that aims to meet and photograph no less than 9 different West African ethnic groups
  • Private photography sessions with Voodoo performers, traditional healers and horse warriors
  • Street photography around the colourful colonial mosque of Porto Novo
  • Community visits to traditional Holi people with their intricately beautiful scarification and tattooing
  • Visit the annual Voodoo Festival in Ouidah
  • Learn more about the Voodoo worship of pythons and how these snakes are revered by the local community at the Python temple in Ouidah
  • Take to the waters of Ganvie, Africa’s largest floating village, with the local fishing community of Lake Nokwe
  • Explore Abomey’s ancient palaces and learn about this former kingdom’s history
  • Meet the traditional healers of the Taneka people in the foothills of the Atacora Mountains
  • Meet the stunning Otamari people with their beautifully sculpted and painted, fortress like homes called ‘tatas’
  • Visit a remote fishing community on the freshwater lakes that span the border of Benin and Nigeria
  • Watch spectacular Batonu horse warriors flamboyantly ride their beautifully decorated horses in dances and races
  • Visit the Dankoli Fetish, the most holy shrine of Voodoo religion
  • Photograph the traditions of voodoo in smaller, private ceremonies for twins, Guelede, Zangbeto and Egungun

BENIN PHOTOGRAPHY TOURS WITH WILD IMAGES

The incredible country of Benin in West Africa is home to some of the friendliest, yet most bizarre, beautiful and ancient cultures on the African continent. Benin photography tours are still uncommon events, but these little-explored countries offer a highly rewarding diversity of photographic opportunities.

To coincide with the annual festival of Voodoo at Ouidah in Benin, our Benin photography tour is the first truly comprehensive cultural exploration by any photography group in the region.  Join us on a journey to learn about Voodoo, the floating village of Ganvie, the world heritage listed Otamari houses (Tatas) and the extraordinary Batonu Horse Warriors of Benin.

Held together by the threads of different beliefs, the cultures of Benin often combine their monotheistic faiths of Christianity or Islam with that of Voodoo, a way of life that it is a supernatural ancestral connection, passed from generation to generation via oral tradition and the presence of spirits linking living people to voodoo spirits.

On this unique Benin photography tour, we will meet no less than nine different West African ethnic groups. Explore the last holders of elaborate body tattoos and facial scarification in the Holi people, the fine featured Fulani nomads with their beautiful and dainty facial tattoos, dramatic Batonu horsemen galloping and dancing their horses in the streets and the stunning Otamari people with their World Heritage listed houses and traditional facial scarification of intricate lines.

Floating around the waters of Lake Nokue on wooden pirogues, we will learn how the Tofinu people survive at Ganvie.

We will join in the lively Voodoo festival at Grand Popo, searching for twirling Zangbeto dancers, Guelede spirits and masked Egoungoun spirits wandering the streets of the city. If the crowds become too much, we can photograph the participants of the festival in our own private Voodoo ceremonies.

This incredible odyssey of West African culture will suit all lovers of non-safari Africa, seasoned African travelers or photographers who are interested in the anthropological wonders of West Africa.

VOODOO

For the people of Benin, the religion of Voodoo underpins almost every facet of their daily lives. It is followed by over 30 million people in Africa and, due to the adaptation of Voodoo to incorporate both Christian and Muslim beliefs, followers of these large monotheistic faiths often worship voodoo alongside them.

Outside of Africa, a common misconception of Voodoo involves black magic, evil deeds and sticking pins in nominated dolls to torture an enemy. This is how we are taught to understand voodoo through popular media including films and television.

For the followers of Voodoo (or Vodoun) in Africa, however, Voodoo represents the cooling sea breeze, the hope for a new job or a new family member. It connects the living with the dead, the people to their earth and people from different faiths and ethnicities.

To understand the strength of Voodoo spirituality in Beninese people, you need to understand three basic tenets – ancestral worship, the intertwined relationship of people and voodoo spirits (or spirit people) and the great interconnectedness of all things.

In Benin Voodoo is everywhere and during our tour we will learn about the mysterious Legbas, or spirit shrines that lie at the entrance of villages and houses; the notion of sacrifice and the offerings to spirits that feature so heavily in the various cultural groups in Benin.

FETISH

In West Africa a fetish is a statue or an object that contains supernatural powers. Its powers derive from the consecration rite that is carried out by spreading the fetish of some substances while fetish priests or practitioners recite some prayers and offer sacrifices.

The fetishes are usually decorated with materials that include horns, shells, nails, feathers, mirrors, metal, string, varnishes, cloth, raffia, fur, beads and herbs. All these elements have the goal of adding power to the fetish.

Fetishes propitiate health and happiness. They are used to solve problems. Each fetish has its role, with some serving as protection from evil spirits and others serving as healing agents.

On our Benin photography tour we will make a brief visit to the most prominent Voodoo shrine in Africa, the Dankoli Fetish, near Savalou.

THE TEMPLE OF PYTHONS

The Temple of Pythons is one of the most revered places in Voodoo belief as the pythons are considered to be important symbols of good luck and benevolence.

According to local legend, the king of Ouidah took refuge from those seeking to kill him during a war in the 18th century. While he was in hiding in the forest pythons emerged and prevented him from being captured. To commemorate their role in his protection, he ordered the creation of three monuments, the most important of which is Ouidah’s Temple of Pythons.

Inside this concrete building there’s a pit filled with dozens of snakes either slinking around or tangled together. It is reported that approximately eighty pythons reside in Ouidah’s python temple. Each night the pythons are let out to roam the streets of Ouidah visiting people in their homes. They are always given right of way in crossing the street as it will cause great harm if one is killed. If you are fortunate enough to have a python visit you in your home, it must stay there before being taken gently back to the python temple the next morning.

This quirky practice is so widely accepted in Ouidah that the christian cathedral across the street from the temple even considers a visit from a python a great blessing.

We will visit the Temple of Pythons on our tour during a day in Ouidah where we will also learn about the importance of the city during the slave trade.

THE VOODOO FESTIVAL

“Voodoo is more than a belief.  It is the hope of women who cannot conceive children, of men who cannot find work and elders who cannot find peace. It restores our faith, protects our land and brings the cool breeze” – Voodoo King Daagbo Hounan (“the one who owns the sea”)

Held annually in January, our tour coincides with the most spectacular celebration in the voodoo calendar, Benin’s annual Voodoo Festival, which is held in the cities of Grand Popo and Ouidah. This festival is famous worldwide for its various trance dances, divinity worship, masked dances and celebrations that are all overseen by the King Adanryoh Guèdèhounguè Agassa, the ultimate leader of the world’s voodoo followers.

While the public performances of the festival are rowdy, involving lots of dancing, beating of drums and singing, we will attend these and also some of the smaller celebrations either exclusively or in tiny villages with a limited number of people.

EGUNGUN

Travelling around the streets during the festival we may encounter Egunguns or elaborate mask wearing creatures, accompanied by percussionists, running around the streets of the city with no predefined destination. Originating in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, Egungun ceremonies in honour of the dead serve as a means of assuring their ancestors a place among the living.

During a celebration, women will clap and sing to honour the family of the Egungun dancers while drummers beat loudly to start the dance. When the Egunguns appear, each is accompanied by a guardian wielding a large stick to stop the Egungun from touching any onlookers. If they accidentally do so, it is thought the touched person may momentarily die.

Children are at once both curious and terrified of the Egunguns who can break off and chase them, sending groups of terrified kids running into the alleyways.

Watching and photographing Egunguns is a fascinating introduction to the culture of Yoruba people in Benin.

ZANGBETO

Twirling Zangbetos are a feature of culture in Benin, Togo and Nigeria. As the original guardians of the night, Zangbetos come out at dusk after being lured out by Voodoo spirit chiefs, drumming, sacrifices and food. Designed to install fear into local citizens if they go out at night, Zangbetos are such an integral part of Beninese culture that they feature strongly in the country’s street art. They are kept in special holding pens and don’t appear to move until they are blessed by voodoo. They also, oddly, all make a noise that sounds like a muffled fog horn! When they emerge they are guarded by men who keep them under control by walking close to them. Then they twirl around by the power of a spirit. It is impossible to really know if a human is under a Zangbeto. The local Beninese will always tell you that a ‘spirit human’ is underneath each one and this spirit can take the form of a smaller Zangbeto, a voodoo spirit person or some other form of moving spiritual life.

With their bright colours and magic, watching Zangbetos are a highlight of our photography tour in Benin.

GUELEDE

Another fantastic ceremony performed by Beninese Yoruba people is that of Guelede which celebrates a feminine divinity. This lively event involves lots of drumming and dancing to procure spectacular masked dancers who start their performance by first blessing the guardian of the Guelede. They then twirl, bless onlookers and dance among the crowd before they are replaced by other masked dancers in the ceremony. We will visit a community of Mahe people to witness Guelede over a colourful afternoon of dancing and singing.

BENIN TWIN CEREMONIES

The people of Benin and Nigeria have some of the highest rates of twin births in the world. Living twins are seen as protectors in society across nearly all of Benin’s cultures.

When twins die at childbirth, however, their spirits live among their families in the form of dolls. These twin dolls are created when the twins die and each day they are cared for by their family like living children. They are bathed, fed and put to bed just like any normal child.

During our photography tour of Benin we will attend a blessing ceremony for twins in the culture of the Fon people, where we will learn more about the prominence of twin people in the realm of voodoo.

Our itinerary in Benin is deliberately designed to be flexible so if we hear about other ceremonies, initiations or dances we can shift our movements to suit our attendance at these.

BENIN’S FISHING VILLAGES

Benin’s coastal waterways are dotted with villages of both fresh and saltwater fishermen. On the coast, pretty thatched huts sit quietly under the shade of towering coconut palms with brightly colored pirogues resting nearby.

Inland these villages take on a different persona with villages built on islands to escape the ravages of slave traders.

“Amniotic waters. Where new life swims. Water is the wealth and cement of Ganvie; the yeast that makes it grow; the reflections that make it shine. Ganvie lives according to the floodwaters. It may wave, but it stands resolutely”

Imagine a world that hovers above water, one where colourful fishing families live in stilted houses that can only be reached by wooden canoes. This is Ganvie, Africa’s largest stilted, or floating, village, which is built above the waters of Lake Nokwe.

During the 17th century Portuguese slave trading boom in Africa, a tribe of people called the Tofinu took to the waters of Lake Nokwe to escape being caught by the more powerful Dahomey slavers from Abomey. Religious beliefs prevented the Dahomey from fighting on the sacred lake, so the lagoon became a haven for the Tofinu, as long as they never returned to dry land.

Fast forward to today and that community of Tofinu people has grown in to the 80,000 strong community of Ganvie. Instead of living in mud huts on land, the people of Ganvie live in bamboo stilt houses suspended above the lake.

On our Benin photography tour we will spend one night in Ganvie, exploring it’s amazing waterways by wooden pirogues and photographing this colourful fishing community as they harvest lake vegetation and fresh fish from the lake that gives them life.

Towards the border of Benin and Nigeria we will also explore an island fishing village by taking a ‘commuter pirogue’ with some of the local people. In the same way as Ganvie, these people also fled slavers, escaping to an island on a remote lake. Today this friendly and colourful community are mostly engaged in fishing, smoking fish and drying produce to sell on the mainland.

SCARIFICATION IN WEST AFRICA

“A child has no life until it bears the scars of its ancestors” – Holi saying

The traditional practice of scarification in West Africa is one that is rapidly dying out. For the traditional people of the Otamari, Holi, Fon and other West African tribes, the practice of scarification is one of great importance, linking people not only to their tribe, but to their ancestors.

In West Africa, there are aesthetic, religious, and social reasons for scarification. For example, scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity; such permanent body markings may emphasize fixed social, political, and religious roles. Tattoos, scars, brands, and piercings, when voluntarily acquired, are ways of showing a person’s autobiography on the surface of their body to the world.

On our Benin photography tour we will explore the scarification of several tribal groups and engage with them for portraits while we learn about what their scars mean to them.

FON

Living mostly near the border of Benin and Togo, the Fon people and their sub-cultures of Kotafon and Sahouie are the bearers of a rich tradition of scarification whereby the children are marked in the same scars as the parents and other members of their family.

As Benin’s most numerous people they are descended from the powerful Dahomey people who were prominent assistants in the slave trade.

During our Benin photo tour, we will explore a ceremony of twins and possibly other initiation rites of the Fon people.

HOLI

The spectacular scarification and tattooing in the Holi people is a highlight of our tour. Exploring pretty Holi villages on foot we will meet many scarred men and women who are the current bearers of this tradition in Benin. Originally from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, most Holi now live in Benin. Traditionally the elders engaged in elaborate torso tattooing, however with the arrival of Christian missionaries and also the reign of General Mathieu Kérékou in 1972 the tradition of tattooing was ceased and while it is still possible to meet Holi elders who proudly show their tattoos to visitors, these elderly people are the last of their kind and when they go, their beautiful art of tattooing will go with them.

FULANI

Fulani people belong are the largest ethnic group in Africa. With people living across eight countries, Fulanis were traditionally nomadic until Africa became divided up on colonial lines. Once borders to countries were established many Fulani opted to simply stay in the country they were living in at the time. These ‘settled’ Fulanis now live in a myriad of countries including Senegal, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria and Benin. After settling many of them abandoned the traditional tattooing and facial marks of their people. While we will not visit any Fulani villages on our tour, it is very possible we will meet Fulanis as we travel around eastern Benin. Fulanis are instantly recognised by their beautiful, fine features and delicate, colourful jewellery.

BATONU

Originally from Nigeria where they lived under the King of Nikki, the Batonu people of Benin are best known for their remarkable horsemanship. Each year Batonu riders, many of whom are the children of dignitaries and royalty, gather with their beautifully decorated horses to race and dance in the streets. These colourful events are full of life and we will spend time watching these men ride energetically on their well trained and cared for horses during our tour.

TANEKA

Benin’s rugged and spectacular Atacora mountains act as a climatic and cultural divide that separates the coastal humid plain from the desert like savannahs in the north of the country. Occupying these beautiful mountain slopes are the fascinating Taneka people who originally came to Benin from Burkina Faso in the north.

Another group that engages in scarring, the Taneka are a small group numbering less than 300 that live together harmoniously in beautiful round clay houses, each topped with a conical roof of thatch.

Traditional healers, or spiritual chiefs, are an important part of the animist beliefs of the Taneka. The spiritual chiefs possesses spiritual secrets and the villagers call him to ask for intercession in case of problems or illness, bringing him food offerings. He deprives himself of everything, except for a pipe that he smokes almost constantly, through which he finds inspiration and means of communication with the spirits. The spiritual chiefs also hold a great knowledge of medicinal plants and can prepare fetishes and amulets to be used as propitiatory objects.

Overseeing the eight chiefs of the Taneka is King Tanigasawa who looks after all of the judicial matters in Taneka society. If we are very lucky on our trip we may meet the King if he is resident in the community at the time of our visit.

OTAMARI

Imagine walking through pretty fields and groves of wild cashew trees dotted with Baobab trees to find some of the most beautiful vernacular architecture in Africa. This is what it is like to visit the Otamari, a group of people whose reverence for nature and connection to the earth differentiates them from almost all of the other ethnic groups in Benin.

Sophisticated and secluded, the Otamari people are one of West Africa’s most intriguing ethnic groups. Living deep in the bush, the Otamari people construct houses known as “Tatas” that are so unusual in their design they have been listed as part of the World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2004.

Tatas (known locally as fortresses) consist of a ground floor which houses a kitchen and livestock owned by the family, a middle floor for cooking and the upper floor or roof designed to dry grains and to sleep. Although there are five key styles of Tatas built today, they all loosely follow these structural principles. Earthly and warm at night with thick walls to keep cool during the day, the Tatas are integrated with the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Otomari, protecting both them and their animals from natural and supernatural dangers. These homes may have developed as a means to resist night raids during the era when slave hunters in West Africa roamed to kidnap their victims for sale. Some feature wells and even external ladders that can be pulled up for self defence which means a family could survive for days on end, unable to be caught by slavers. When the ground floor entry to a Tata is closed, access to it is via a tiny hole in the roof that acts as a doorway to the sky.

Unlike many African villages where the houses of families are clustered together, Tatas are more separate and each are surrounded by the fields of their family. When a location for a new Tata is being decided, the Otamari shoot an arrow in to the air. Where it lands will be the place a new Tata is built.

The Otamari people are known for their traditional body scarring rituals, starting between the age of two and three. These special marks are a form of lifelong identification marks (tattoo ID), which identify a person as belonging to one’s tribe as well as more coded personal information. Additional marks are added at puberty, readiness for marriage and post-child birth as a form of visible communication.

Scarring in the Otomari people can take many forms in line with a variety of different meanings, the predominant marks indicating which tribal group a person belongs to.

Starting at the age of two or three years old, scars can also be created to indicate readiness for marriage, reaching puberty and mark a child’s birth. Some may even be given to protect against sickness or spiritual attacks.

The scarification takes the form of very fine parallel lines and these lines are replicated in all of the things the Otamari create including their homes and clay pots.

Organic in form and each one differing from the other, exploring these beautiful Tatas is a highlight of our Benin photography tour.

 

Benin Visas: It is important to apply for your Benin visa prior to you joining this tour.

Benin – Tourists visas for most nationalities can be obtained using an e-visa system where you apply before you arrive and collect your visa at the airport in Cotonou. These visas can be applied for up to 90 days prior to your arrival, but no less than 7 days before the start of the tour.

Accommodation & Road Transport

Road transport is by modern minibuses.

Accommodation is in comfortable hotels.

Walking

The walking on this tour is mostly easy.

Climate

The weather in Benin will be hot and often humid. There is likely to be a mixture of sunny and overcast conditions. Rain is unlikely.

Photographic Equipment

For most photography of the people in West Africa, a travel lens of around 24-105mm on a full frame DSLR or mirrorless body will be essential. A wide angle lens of around 16mm or smaller will be perfect for working with the people inside smaller rooms.

If you prefer to photograph people from a distance, then please consider bringing a larger zoom or telephoto lens. It is our experience that sometimes people can feel a bit intimidated by large cameras and lenses so you may wish to bring a smaller sized zoom lens like a 100-400mm which doesn’t appear as intimidating as a large fixed focal length telephoto lens. Such a lens can also be useful for the ceremonies we will attend as you will often be standing in a crowd and a longer lens will allow you to shoot past other onlookers.

If you bring a good quality bridge camera instead of a DSLR or mirrorless it will be best if it has an optical zoom of 18-20x or more, combined with a reasonable wide-angle at the other end of the zoom range.

If you have a phone or tablet that can be used for photography, you may find these quite useful around people. Similarly if you have a Polaroid camera like the Leica Sofort or an Instax Mini, these are wonderful to have on hand when you spend time with tribal people. If you decide to bring one of these, please bring lots of film with you as the photographs you produce will be quite popular!

Drones are particularly wonderful to use in Benin and they provide a very unique perspective of Beninese fishing and tribal villages. Benin has very few restrictions on flying drones, however, there are a few limitations you will need to consider when you fly.

If you would like to talk over suitable equipment, please contact our office. We will be happy to advise.

Key Information

Date: January 8, 2023
Duration: 15 Days
Cost: Provisional £5180, $7250, €5950, AUD9360. Cotonou/Cotonou. Single Supplement: 2022: £280, $400, €330, AUD510.
Places: 6

This booking will be made through a third party website and will open a new tab when you press Book Now


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