Monday 5 August 2013

o : Ganvié

A pirogue near Ganvié
Lake Nokoué

Dear o,

For the first time in Africa I wish I were a child growing up here.  I imagine getting up in the middle of the night, sneaking past my parents and brothers and sisters.  I crawl down through the secret trapdoor next to the black rubber-covered shower stall, drop into the dark water, and swim between the stilts to my friend across the canal, who waits at the usual spot with the red face painted onto the bamboo.  In his older brother’s dugout canoe we got out to catch fish jumping from the farmed reeds into the moonlight.

This is Ganvié, the town on stilts.  It was built several kilometres out on the lake by the Tofinu people in the 1600s, to avoid the Dahomey slave traders who were prohibited by belief from going onto the water.  The town – as well as its people, their customs, their livelihoods, and to some extent their isolation – has lasted the centuries.  Most of the bamboo houses and shops we pass by are relatively new.  I can’t imagine the oldest constructed part of Ganvié is older than a century, solely because of the longevity of wood sunk in water.  But in the centre of the floating city is an artificial raised-earth section with a large, well-kept mosque, sturdy houses and businesses, and plenty of farming.  Beyond this human-made island are a few other goat-pens and gardens, secured from the water by a wood floor and a layer of soil.  The canals are busy with market traders, food-sellers, cargo holds, and fishermen (mostly boys, some as young as six with a dugout boat and cast net of their own).  The rows and rows of houses are connected by catwalks, ropes, thin beams and, of course, secret passageways.  A woman was just sharing a joke with her two friends on a ‘porch’ (dock) with their feet in the water, their laughter carried by the water throughout this echoing, labyrinthine civilisation.  I’ve heard that in Mongolia a child learns to ride a horse before learning to walk.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the girls and boys here take their first steps between the gunwales of a pirogue, with a paddle in hand.

I’ve been to Venice, and I don’t think anyone else who has could visit Ganvié without making the comparison.   People get around by boat.  Stuff is carried by boat.  Tourists come to ride in a boat.  But the travel-and-compare game is quickly ineffective in Ganvié, and it becomes a bore  not long after one moves from the idea of a place to the place itself.  Venice is made of stone, marble, brick and tiles.  It is cobbled, signposted and totally accessible on foot (once you’re on the island).  There are statues, monuments, chapels, cathedrals, museums, palaces, city squares, gardens, towers and tourist information centres, not to mention all the hotels, restaurants, shops, galleries and – yes – actual homes.  Venice is huge, cosmopolitan, modern (behind the Renaissance mask), and far older than Ganvié.

Perhaps, hundreds of years ago, Venice was not unlike Ganvié; at some point it must have been an unassuming collection of people out on the water trying to make a livelihood and a life.  But today, the ethos of Venice is totally different: it is all about permanence.  The people of Venice, or more accurately the people who want to preserve Venice, are unconcerned with crops and families, goats and traditions.  They are fighting a war with the sea, a struggle that goes back centuries to hold back the tides and the storms and natural cycles of our world.  21st-century climate change threatens Venice all the more, but the Doges as well as the historical preservation societies have all known what it means for the oceans to rise.  And this is what makes Venice so fascinating: it is not just an island battling the swamp.  It is all humanity battling time.  It is our desperate desire, in our own lives and in the lifetimes of our civilisations, to make a mark, be remembered, and with any measure of impossible luck, last forever.  In Venice, as elsewhere, we lace our roots with steel and emboss our branches with gold.  The tree’s future will grow longer, yes, but it cannot be immortal.  Though we’ll try, by the gods, we’ll try.

There is no such arrogance in Ganvié.  Maybe in every boy or girl is the dream to be different, be special, and live on through the millenia; but nobody here acts like it.  Nobody builds like it.  Nobody talks like it.  When in the middle of the night I cup and kick the water, silent as a fish, on the way to my friend’s brother’s canoe, I’ll think of it as the most significant thing that’s ever been done.  Our jokes will be the funniest ever told, our laughs the hardest on the belly there ever was, and the moonlight monster who almost ate half our canoe (see the tooth marks?) the biggest, meanest, most aggressive creature the world has ever seen.  Ganvié won’t be a 16th-century world, an older world, a tourists’ world, an expensive world, or even my parents’ world – it will be mine, made by my hands and feet and eyes in every moment I live.  And there are treasures underneath the stilt houses; the very fact that they are buried makes them treasure.  I won’t worship the wood on which I sleep.  If I ever do sleep.

The unspoken irony of my letter is not lost on me.  For a healthy, well-traveled, privileged westerner to say he wished he could have grown up an African, in an African village, on a foundation of precarious African bamboo.  Not only that, but a westerner with an interest verging on belief in architecture, history and, well, permanence.  Because the same boy I wish I could be would probably trade wishes with me, does this make me ignorant for the dream?

Africa has the fastest-growing population on earth, as the twin result of improving birth rates and longer lives – but infant mortality is still abhorrently high, and most lives are still tragically short.  A typical boy who grows up in Ganvié can expect to do what he learned to do long before puberty: fish.  He can hope to avoid or at least survive disease which to this day plagues his continent: malaria, AIDS, sleeping sickness, yellow fever, typhoid, hepatitis, even polio.  He can aim to keep his health, to feed himself and his family, find and feed a good wife, raise and feed good children, and earn the respect of his community.  If education, or politics, or travel – or archicture, history and permanence – enter into his sphere of desires, then these will not so much change him into an educated, politically-minded traveler with an interest in history, but rather more likely into the town dreamer.  The absent-minded fisherman.  The quiet one who always wanted to learn to read properly, and the one who as a boy knew more words for the pale foreigners than merely, ‘donnez-moi l’argent’.  If the boy skips town, he’ll likely end up in the big city of Cotonou, making bricks, selling peanuts, or if he’s lucky and smart, driving a taxi.  In much of Africa, Ganvié  being no different, who you are is who you were born to be.  Do I still wish to swim in the reeds and splash from below my older sister in her sleep?

Yes.  That’s the gift of imagination.  I don’t have to turn back time to live a little in Ganvié and Venice.  It’s something we all have.  I can see it in the eyes of the little boy in his canoe, who sits and looks at me between the stilts, floating beside the red face painted into the bamboo.



Ganvié mosque
Ganvié market 
Ganvié boy fisherman