A city built on the water is familiar to us all in the Western world. Venice is an ancient and beautiful place, very familiar to most people through visits or television documentary programmes. 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.
The small state of Benin boasts a unique village built on stilts. Sited on Lake Nokoué, just north of the largest city, Cotonou, is the township called Ganvie. It has a population of 30,000, all living in bamboo houses, built on stilts. Getting around in the town is only possible in boats carved from tree trunks, even if all you want to do is visit the next door neighbour.
The town has one complete patch of land, which is the site of the village school. All the soil was imported by the people of Ganvie in their boats, and they have set about importing much more so they can also create a proper cemetery, in order that those townspeople who have spent their entire lives in Ganvie can also be laid to rest there.
The meaning of the name Ganvie is “we survived”, and is a reminder of events centuries ago that led to the founding of the township. It’s commonly believed that the Tofinu people settled here around 400 years ago to escape slavers who came from the Fon tribe and were not allowed to fight in water for traditional reasons (or perhaps could not swim).
The Tofinu chief formed an ingenious plan to shelter his people in the middle of Lake Nokoué – where enemies and slavers could not capture them. The Dom Homey believed a terrible demon lived in the lake, and their ruthless warriors dared not set foot in its waters. The Tofinu had finally found their peace, and were determined to hang on to it.
This is the only human settlement in the world – of its kind – built on stilts. It lies in the middle of a lake, several kilometres from the nearest shore. From rafts and canoes, a village system on water emerged, including markets, and today schools, restaurants, churches, clinics and more.
The people of Ganvie are still, centuries later, reluctant to move to solid ground, although the threat of slavery is only a distant memory. They have, over many generations, grown accustomed to living on the water, and have no desire to abandon their unique lifestyle, for anything. This unique African village is completely sustainable, and the only time villagers go ashore is when they want to sell their fish.
They survive through small-scale fish farming and various other means. The town today boasts a hotel, several restaurants and some souvenir shops. It is, however, still a mainly unknown tourist destination, which is a great shame because it does sit in a beautiful location. If you really want to see something truly unique on your next big trip overseas, why not consider visiting Ganvie? It is the African Venice, after all.