a window in one of Porto Novo’s dusty neighbourhoods

Porto Novo

With pain in the heart we leave our little beach hotel behind – which was actually more like a hotel close to the beach, a beach too filthy to sit on, and the sea too filthy to bathe in, just next to the Cotonou harbour entrance. But it was a very comfortable place, nevertheless, with good food, cold drinks and pleasant people.

Our next destination is Porto Novo, Benin’s rather humble capital city, an hour’s drive inland from Cotonou. Everybody tells us there is absolutely nothing to do in Porto Novo, but we have identified no less than three museums, with a variety of artefacts – masks, sculptures, Voodoo fetishes – that interest us. And being somewhat smaller than sprawling Cotonou, perhaps Porto Novo appeals more to us than any of the cities we have been so far. High hopes, based on very little.

one of the better-looking old colonial buildings

nowhere else seen yet, but here they have lots of small book stalls, selling school books and classics

the egg lady, with hardly any supplies


Right. The Musée Ethnographique de Porto Novo, with reputedly a fabulous collection of ceremonial masks on the ground floor (my guide book of 20 years, plus recent internet research) is closed for renovation. When they closed it, and when it will reopen, remains unclear, but a quick view suggests that this will take a while, still. No such uncertainty about the Museum Da Silva, a small private museum. We are being told that this one has been destroyed. Indeed, destroyed.

the Pantheon Negro et Africain

and there he is again, the Haitian connectiion: Toussaint Louverture was Haiti’s rebel leader who gained independance from France in 1804

the tree, planted on the African continent

Instead we come across the ‘Pantheon Negro et Africain’, a courtyard with an artificial tree, meant to be an in memoriam not only for all the African slaves that have been taken away, but also all the Africans that died fighting foreign domination. Not a bad thing, of course. We pay our entrance tickets, yet, we ourselves feel distinctly unwelcome; again, this hostile atmosphere we have noticed before, but in this context it seems that we are unwanted because we are white. Resentment. Upstairs is a gallery with photographs of famous black people who have died. I would have thought that they would have to have contributed to the black cause, and indeed, Rosa Parks is there, Nelson Mandela. Several other former African presidents, who I think not necessarily furthered the black cause, more their individual cause. And then there other black heroes that have died, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Bob Marley. Did they do a lot for the black cause? Oh, and Michael Jackson is there too. Isn’t that the guy who tried to get increasingly white? Great idea, promoting the black cause, but some introspection would have helped. The highlight? A quote of Toussaint Louverture, who successfully liberated Haiti from the French. There he is again, the Haitian link!

the rather bland cathedral

the rather bland statue of king Toffa

and what remains of the benches in the park around Toffa – where have the legs gone? and why?

the Place Vodun Gbeloko Honto

with its symbols on the outer walls

a Voodoo sculpture in the corner, ready to be used

and an offering shrine inside

including a gory animal skull fetish

The Pantheon is at a major square, which is called Place Toffa, but which everybody still refers to by its old name, Place Jean Bayol. Here is not only the not very attractive Catholic basilic on one side, and a horrible sculpture of King Toffa in the centre – King Toffa was the local power broker in the days of colonial trading, who signed the protectorate treaty with the French -, but also a Voodoo temple on the other side. This is Place Vodun Gbeloko Honto. The building looks relatively new, well maintained, and outside walls decorated with images, I suspect relative to various Voodoo symbols. There is nobody inside, it looks closed but I find another entrance at the back. This is an active worshipping site, with several offering places, one particularly grim with animal skulls. I have never actually seen anything like this, in Haiti the Voodoo places were usually much less obvious, more hidden. But here in Benin, Voodoo is the dominant religion, 60% of the population adhere to it, and the other 40%, Christian and Muslim, also have some sympathy for it; you never know, don’t you? This calls for more…

an this is another offering shrine, in the same temple

the Institut Francais d’ Afrique Noire, built in 1916

I wonder what they were doing here, at the time

street view of one of the central (!) neighbourhoods in Porto Novo

We wander around a little more, discover some old colonial buildings – amongst them the French Institute for Black Africa, from 1916. And discover the streets in between the wider avenues, which are almost village-like, sandy tracks with small, concrete houses, wooden doors and windows, the occasional small shop or stall. Really provincial. But then there is this mural, somebody has decorated his house with attractive graffiti. And he is not alone, others have followed his example. Really creative.

This place keeps on surprising. High hopes haven’t been dashed, yet.

Next: more Porto Novo, now the Voodoo quartier

where residents have attractively decorated some of their houses

and what about this one?

and sometimes you just come across some pretty colour contrasts

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