Dispatches from Ghana: Togo and Benin's culture, pythons, lagoon life

Recently, a dozen Penn State undergraduate and graduate students returned from study abroad at the University of Ghana in West Africa, where they were accompanied and instructed by Francis Dodoo, a Penn State research professor with the Population Research Institute and professor of sociology and demography. Three of the students blogged about their experiences while in Ghana. This is the third of three entries.

Togo and Benin's culture, pythons, lagoon life
By Christine Fagioletti

The Penn State group’s trip to Togo and Benin has been my favorite so far. It is interesting how two cultures could be so similar, and yet so very different. Though all are West African countries, and the three capitals are all within a couple hundred miles of each other, seeing the difference between British-influenced Ghana and Francophone Togo and Benin was a pleasant culture shock. The first major difference I noticed once driving across the border was the abundance of motorcycles and motorbike taxis. In most areas the motorbikes far outnumber the cars. All of the bikes during rush hour weaving in and around our bus reminded me of a swarm of bees. Continuously surrounded by this swarm, our bus first took us to tour Benin.

One of the first places we visited on our trip was the python village near Ouidah. In this town, pythons are viewed as sacred animals, and even as gods. A sanctuary exists for them in the village. When the people of the town come across a python, they bring it to the sanctuary. The snakes are then allowed to go free at night. There is also a priest of the pythons who takes care of prayers and offerings to them as well as the sacred python cemetery, which only he is allowed to enter. At the sanctuary, we were allowed to pet and hold the pythons. Several brave students even wore the pythons around their necks while their pictures were taken!

Next we visited one of the most important slave forts in Benin. Ouidah was a small fortress built by the Portuguese in the city of Ouidah on the coast of Dahomey in 1580, after which it grew around the slave trade. Here we saw artifacts like slave shackles and beads and shells used to trade slaves. Cannons were also a commodity of the time and used for slave trade. Being in a place where such significant events of history occurred is always moving.

The next day we traveled to visit the village of Ganvie, which means "peaceful people." It is said that the people of this village moved into the lagoon centuries ago to avoid war and slave capture. The entire village is on stilts in the water, a good 20-minute boat ride from shore. It is amazing how this unique group of people have altered their way of life to live in the lagoon. We could see their floating market in several long boats. We also learned how they create patches of dry land by piling the mud and clay high behind fences. They primarily do this so their children have a space to learn to walk.  However, we saw many children swimming and playing in the water.

One of the final stops on our tour was a fetish market. In Togo and Benin, Islam and Christianity coexist with the traditional Voodoo religion. Our group was split into smaller groups of two or three and shown in to see a Voodoo priest. He then blessed each of us to have safe journeys throughout Africa. Some students then chose charms for good luck, good grades on final exams, or even to find love. The market had many strange items like horse heads, antelope skulls, hyena pelts, cobra spines and much more. One student even bargained for a pair of monkey feet. It was an experience of a lifetime, to say the least.

Penn State’s trip to Togo and Benin was definitely an exciting one, and just a glimpse of the great times we shared. I hope someday to return there to explore more of Togo and Benin’s exciting history, culture and great food.

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To see photos from Togo and Benin, go to http://live.psu.edu/stilllife/1944.

Dodoo is returning to Ghana with a new group of students in fall 2009; the application deadline is March 1. Those interested in more information about the study-abroad program, which focuses on social science and research and is based at the University of Ghana, should e-mail Rachel Helwig, education abroad adviser, at reh25@psu.edu, or visit the Penn State Education Abroad Web site.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010