Friday 9 August 2013

o : Ouidah

Auberge Diaspora

Dear o,

It’s near midnight and the stars are out.  Al and I have had one of the best days of our whole trip.  The taxi – an actual vehicle, instead of the motorcycles which typically service Benin – pulls up in front of our empty hotel.  Al gets out the 2,000 francs, having resigned after we got in to the high price, and gives it to the driver.  He throws the money back at her, and says, “Dix mille”.  As it is the second time today we are told a different price at the end of the journey from the one at the beginning, Al is furious.  She leaves the money on the seat, and gets out.  The driver and I get out and I forestall him, as Alex crosses the road to our room (the hotel occupies both sides of the road).  He insists that that’s his price, and I tell him that CFA 10,000 is absurd for only seven kilometres – that we’ve crossed hundreds of kilometres over hours of atrocious driving for a third that rate, that we agreed to “deux mille” (an obvious and common misunderstanding).  As I’m trying to explain the possible misunderstanding, the driver pushes me.  I pivot around and get in his face, shouting hard and firm, “ne me touche pas!”.  He seems to get the message, and we’re somewhat calm again.

The driver makes a phone call to a “manager”, and screams and shouts.  He says the manager is on his way.  Al goes back and forth between the taxi and the hotel.  Three of the hotel guardians arrive, and I explain the situation.  They then hear it from the driver, in their own language, and in two seconds it is clear whose side they’re on.  The white tourist is trying to steal a rip-off price from the black taxi driver, of course.

“Fine,” I say, “we’ll wait for the manager.”

I pace back and forth on the dirt path leading from the gate into the hotel grounds, lit by the tall fluorescent light above.  The three staff walk to the other side of the road and talk with Al, who is still outraged, saying things like “ridiculous”, “absurd”, and “toujours, la meme chose.”

I hear quick, pounding footsteps behind me.  I turn and he’s there.  “Arretez,” I say.He pushes me again, and I push him back.  I put my hand out and say, “non”.  He slaps my hand.  I put my fists up.  He puts his up.

One of the staff has run back, but doesn’t get between us.  “Appelez la police,” I shout, without looking away from my opponent with the wild eyes.  But the hotel guardian doesn’t move.  “Appelez la police maintenant!”  The other two arrive, and do nothing.

My knees are bent, my feet are bouncing, my nails are digging into my palms.  The taxi driver throws a left punch.


It was a refreshing morning: finally, no work to be done.  No planning for the day, no arranging tomorrow’s early-morning bus.  No struggling to figure out what to do.  We had breakfast by the sea, a leisurely walk down the road, and a fascinating, though short, conversation with a Ogoni man on a bicycle.  He spoke of his people’s exile from Nigeria to neighbouring Benin, how there were only 52 left in the community, how they would be arrested, possibly killed, if they attempted to return, and of their website and committee work.  He rode on as we got motorcycle taxis into town, to the tourism office to find an English-speaking tour.

Against all odds, we found one, and it was just leaving: seven Nigerians packed into their two cars, ready to go, while we tested the guide’s English and confirmed that yes, indeed, he would be our guide (we’ve had a problem with this before).  Sure enough, we were on the first English-speaking tour of our entire trip, about to learn the ins and outs of Benin’s major slave trading port, and Africa’s voodoo capital: Ouidah.

First it was snakes, rendered harmless by their keepers and worshippers in the Temple of the Pythons.  We held them, played with them, and the Nigerians took dozens of photos of the girls running scared at the touch – and some of the boys, too.  A different guide accompanied us, and on his face were the six marks carved in with a knife when he was a few months old: two on the forehead, and two on each cheekbone, all up-down.

We moved on to the museum, which is inside a former Portuguese fort.  I have read about African slavery in many books.  I have helped to develop a play set on an 18th-century slave ship, where the captives perform in coffins of chalk.  I have visited other slave trading posts, met descendants of former slaves, and bemoaned the slavery which continues in our world today.  I have felt I understood it, appreciated it, defeated what remnants of it there are in my mind.

And then I stood in a room in a white-walled museum and looked upon an image of a slave ship with its rows of bodies, less living things, more like ticks of a pencil – accountings – while the Nigerians asked questions.  Would they jump into the ocean if they could?  Why would the owners treat them like that, if they were wanted for work?  One man, the most precocious one, corrected a sign in the museum that said the slave trade did not exist before the Europeans.  Yes it did, he said.  We kept each other as slaves before the Europeans came.  The Europeans just made it big-time.  There were no tears, no fury, no outward emotion; just the intense desire to learn and somehow, by learning, make right.

I couldn’t help it.  I was different in that room.  I am a white man.  No amount of reading will change my blood.  No amount of understanding will alter my heritage.  No amount of doing will erase what was done.  Nobody looked at me as such, but I did look at myself.  Where is it?  Where is the part of me that shackled men and women, beat them, ground them down, forced them to make me rich?  Where is the part of me that couldn’t stop the greed when it shipped millions from their home to grow me sugar, corn, cotton?  Where is the part of me that dug mass pits in which to throw the weak and diseased people, still alive, doomed to a last exhale on their own soil for not being strong enough for the voyage?  Where is that part of me, so I can fight it, wrestle it, kill it, and burn it?  Where is it?  I wanted to know so I could show the room in triumph, and learn of slavery as equals, as brothers and sisters.  But I couldn’t find it.

Following the museum we visited the Sacred Forest, admired the fantastical, whimsical and tellingly disjointed artwork made around the sacred giant tree, and tried the divine the stories behind the figures as well as the place, whenever the guide’s version was too plain.  The sculptures were either colourful or rustic, harsh or smooth, metallic or porcelain, and never in between.  The Sacred Forest is a place of impact, vitality and message, with contemplation ushered to the shadows.

We went for lunch and bonded with the Nigerians, whom we learned were out exclusively in Ouidah for the long weekend.  They told stories of how they got through the Benin border (a long, difficult and expensive ordeal, which we sympathised with), of politics, and of home.  One said that everyone in Lagos relates to Lagos life: you spend all day being busy, convinced of your busyness, consumed by your busyness – and yet at the end of the day, you’ve done nothing.  You drove from home to work, from work to home, recovering in between.  We talked about city living, city problems, and the bigger world.

After lunch we went along the Slave Walk.  We started in Ouidah’s centre (the old slave market, where slaves were purchased in exchange for goods), and stopped at the Tree of Forgetfulness, around which newly-chained slaves were forced to circle three times, in order to forget who they were, where they were from, everything.  Then the Tree of Return, again with a three-time circle, so that captives could return to Africa once dead overseas (though, still as slaves); and the common graves, where the unfit and the too-rebellious were tossed; and to the monuments at both of these sites.

Outside the garden of the Tree of Return, two of the Nigerians, Feyala and Begue, gave money to three kids who were begging.  The kid who received the coins walked away, and gave a pittance to his friends.  One of them cried, and they came to blows.  I watched it all unfold, leaning against the car.  They fought and screamed and cried, and I watched.  They saw me watching, stopped, came up to me, and asked for more.  I shook my head, absolutely not.  Then they just walked away and continued to fight.  On the other side of the car, the others were arguing about funding such sites like these in Nigeria, and one argued the money would be better spent on things people actually need, and he cited the kids who needed the money more than the art surrounding the slavery monument.  I didn’t say anything.

Finally, we arrived at the Point of No Return itself, a hundred meters or so from shore, with a grand new archway leading in and out, decorated, painted, beautiful.

Under the arch our guide tried to double our price for the tour, from 15,000 to 30,000.  Here we go again, I thought.  We prepared for another battle.  But the Nigerians got wind of it, and descended on the ring.  They had paid 25,000 francs for seven, while we were orignally stuck with 15,000 for two – let alone now, with 30,000.  Soon there was a bigger shouting match, and Al and I were silent.  In the end, we paid 6,000 more, and tagged along with our new friends / guardian angels to their hotel.

We played Marco Polo in the pool, ate a delicious dinner, and then spent a few hours over board games on the patio in front of their rooms.  We shared our war stories from the frontline of trans-African travel, and heard about their close, yet hilarious, calls with the Benin police.  All that, of course, under the booming weekend joy of some of the loudest, most gregarious, open-hearted people I’ve met in a long time.  Needless to say, Al and I had a blast.

Akimbo, whose birthday it was, called us a taxi.  Not long before midnight it arrived.  We said goodbye, collected a few contact cards, and walked out with an escort.  We asked the taxi driver how much.  We heard “deux mille”, agreed, and drove off.


I dodge the taxi driver’s punch.  It’s easy; he’s slow, maybe drunk, and too furious to calculate.  I’m going to hit back.  Everything in me wants to drive him into the ground.  I wait for the next one, for him to open himself.

He charges forward, and stops.  There is a gap, and one of the hotel guardians steps in between us.  I don’t put down my guard.  “Appelez la police,” I say again.  One of the others shakes his head, in part begging me not to, in part telling me, that won’t happen.

Al is across the road.  “Call the police,” I yell.  “How?” she asks.  “Find a way.”

There is no way.  No cars on the road, no telephone, no other guests.  “Should I go down the road and find someone?”  I look at the taxi driver.  He’s angry, but surrounded.  I realise my fists are back down.  “No,” I say, “just wait.”

A few minutes later the manager of the Casa del Papa arrives.  He explains that 10,000 is the price he agreed to pay when he called for the taxi.  Nobody told us that, I say.  He apologises.  And it’s still far too expensive.  He apologises.  I tell the manager to get the taxi driver to get our 2,000 out of the car.  The driver does, and passes the money to the manager, who passes it to me.  I give the manager 10,000, who passes it to the driver, who is unsatisfied.

Je ne suis pas une voleur,” I declare.  I am not a thief.

I walk away.  I try to think of how everything that just happened relates to everything that happened before.  I can’t quite figure it out.  It’s a simple story, really, and I hope I tell it for some other reason than to give you some suspense.  There is a misunderstanding over the price, and it comes to little blows on the way to bigger ones.  In the end, everything is sorted, everyone goes home (or to their room), and the police are never called.

Whatever, right?  Who cares.

Forgive me.  I do.  I’m still searching for that part of myself, that chained my brothers and sisters, reduced their humanity, and eradicated their history.  The Africans, too, feel the same guilt and share the same past.  They did indeed capture and keep and trade each other as slaves before the Portuguese and the British and the French commandeered the enterprise and globalised the market.  So here I am, and all I can think about are those kids, who fought with fists and tears over coins outside the walls of a monument to slavery.  And I think –whoever I am to think it –it’s not over.  It’s still in me.  It’s still in all of us.  We’ve got a lot of work to do.



The Python Temple
The one-footed warrior
in the Sacred Voodoo Forest
Spirit statue,
Sacred Voodoo Forest
Slavery Monument
near the Tree of Forgetfulness
Slavery Monument,
on the site of the mass common slave graves
The Point of No Return,
on the beach