Benin & Togo: Unseen West Africa
A journey to discover Voodoo, scarification and the most spectacular cultures of West Africa
Tuesday 5th January – Thursday 21st January 2021
Leader: Inger Vandyke and knowledgeable local cultural guides
|17 Days||Group Size Limit 6|
- A truly comprehensive Benin & Togo photography tour that aims to meet and photograph no less than 13 different West African ethnic groups
- Private photography sessions with Voodoo performers, traditional healers, tribal elders in traditional dress, horse warriors and fire dancers
- Street photography around the colourful colonial mosque of Porto Novo
- Community visits to traditional Yoruba and Goun people
- Visit the annual Voodoo Festival in Ouidah
- Learn more about the Voodoo worship of pythons and how these snakes are revered by the local community at the Python temple near Ouidah
- Take to the waters of Ganvie, Africa’s largest floating village, with local fishing women and families of Lake Nokwe
- Explore Abomey’s ancient palaces and meet the Xla, Fon and Mina ethnic groups
- Learn about the traditional healers of the Taneka people when we visit their villages of Djougou and Kopargo
- Meet the stunning Tatasomba people near the border of Togo and Benin with their beautifully sculpted and painted, fortress like huts called ‘tatas’
- Photography with northern Benin’s Peul tribes (Bariba, Otamari, Waaba, Natimba and Yom)
- Explore the amazing Takienta, the elaborate mud houses of the spectacularly scarred Batammariba community
- Visit the fire and horse festivals of Sokode in Togo
- Street photography at the lively Grand Marche of Lomé, in the neighbourhood of the Sacred Heart German cathedral
BENIN & TOGO PHOTOGRAPHY TOURS WITH WILD IMAGES
The incredible countries of Benin and Togo in West Africa are home to some of the friendliest, yet most bizarre, beautiful and ancient cultures on the African continent. Benin & Togo photography tours are still uncommon events, but these little-explored countries offer a highly rewarding diversity of photographic opportunities.
To coincide with the annual festival of Voodoo at Ouidah in Benin, our Benin & Togo photography tour is the first truly comprehensive cultural exploration by any photography group in the region. We will explore no less than 13 different West African ethnic groups including their traditions of scarring and tattooing. Join us on a journey to learn about Voodoo, the floating village of Ganvie, the world heritage listed Tata Somba houses of Benin and the Peul Horse Warriors of Togo.
Held together by the threads of different beliefs, the cultures of these countries often combine their monotheistic faiths of Christianity or Islam with that of Voodoo, a way of life that it is a supernatural ancestral connection, passed from generation to generation via oral tradition.
On this unique Benin & Togo photography tour, we will explore no less than 13 different West African ethnic groups. Some of them are nomadic Peul people who have decided to live in Benin and Togo from countries further north, adding to the beauty of these cultures with their elaborate dress and facial tattoos. Others engage in fine, elaborate facial scarring and body painting. We will meet the stunning Tatasomba people with their World Heritage listed houses and traditional dress of horned hats.
Floating around the waters of Lake Nokue on wooden pirogues, we will learn how the Tofinu people survive at Ganvie.
We will join in the lively Voodoo festival at Ouidah, searching for twirling Zangbeto dancers and masked Egoungoun spirits wandering the streets of the city. If the crowds become too much, we can photograph the participants of the festival in our own private Voodoo ceremony.
Other festivals we will join include the nightly fire dance and spectacular horse festival at Sokode.
This incredible odyssey of West African culture will suit all lovers of non-safari Africa, seasoned African travellers or photographers who are interested in the anthropological wonders of West Africa.
THE YORUBA AND GOUN PEOPLE OF PORTO NOVO
The Goun people of Porto Novo originally migrated from Tado in Togo to Allada in Benin before conquering the Yoruba people who had settled in the Porto Novo area after they migrated from Nigeria. Today the two groups live in harmony, united by the fishing industry of this lovely coastal town.
We will start our Benin and Togo photography expedition by meeting these two groups of people and photographing them in their communities.
Exploring the streets around the historic mosque at Port Novo will allow us to do some beautiful street photography of Beninese people going about their daily lives with the beautiful crumbling facades of the mosque as our backdrop.
“Amniotic waters. Where new life swims. Water is the wealth and cement of Ganvie; the yeast that makes it grow; the reflections that make it shine. Ganvie lives according to the floodwaters. It may wave, but it stands resolutely”
Imagine a world that hovers above water, one where colourful fishing families live in stilted houses that can only be reached by wooden canoes. This is Ganvie, Africa’s largest stilted, or floating, village, which is built above the waters of Lake Nokwe.
During the 17th century Portuguese slave trading boom in Africa, a tribe of people called the Tofinu took to the waters of Lake Nokwe to escape being caught by the more powerful Fon slavers from Dahomey. Religious beliefs prevented the Fon from fighting on the sacred lake, so the lagoon became a haven for the Tofinu, as long as they never returned to dry land.
Fast forward to today and that community of Tofinu people has grown in to the 30,000 strong community of Ganvie. Instead of living in mud huts on land, the people of Ganvie live in bamboo stilt houses suspended above the lake. Instead of keeping chickens and other terrestrial livestock, the Tofinu have learned to farm fish in pens made from reeds and palm fronds.
The lack of motorised boats in Ganvie has led to a very quiet existence and the community is often considered the “Venice of Africa”.
On our Benin & Togo photography tour we will spend two nights in Ganvie, exploring it’s amazing waterways by wooden pirogues and photographing this colourful fishing community as they harvest lake vegetation, oysters and fresh fish from the lake that gives them life.
THE VOODOO FESTIVAL OF OUIDAH
“Voodoo is more than a belief. It is the hope of women who cannot conceive children, of men who cannot find work and elders who cannot find peace. It restores our faith, protects our land and brings the cool breeze” – Voodoo King Daagbo Hounan (“the one who owns the sea”)
A far cry from how the world perceives “voodoo”, where the act of sticking pins in dolls to persecute enemies permeates our popular media, the belief of voodoo in west Africa is a living, breathing set of rituals that permeates the everyday life of its people.
Every year, in the Beninese city of Ouidah, followers of voodoo gather in their thousands to enjoy the annual voodoo festival. It is a time of great celebration, of chanting, spell-binding dances and trances. These fascinating rites are performed by a myriad of adepts, fetish priests, tribal chiefs and devotees, providing an amazing glimpse in to the culture of West Africa.
During our tour we will hold a small private voodoo ceremony where we may photograph the rituals of voodoo in our own courtyard alongside a smaller group of worshippers.
Travelling around the streets of Ouidah we may also encounter processions of Egunguns or elaborate mask wearing creatures, accompanied by percussionists, running around the streets of the city, with no predefined destination. These richly decorated masks are made using very heavy fabrics, skins and draperies with glittering colours, to which many shells are applied with geometric motifs and finally sprinkled with palm oil.
These masks represent the spirits of the deceased and give rise to a curious ritual that consists of Egunguns pursuing random participants, trying to hit them with a stick. Whoever gets hit receives a kind of curse. Beninese children especially engage in long chases with these mask wearers, trying to dodge the waving sticks behind them.
We will also seek out twirling Zangbetos or Night Spirits (Guardians of the night) at the festival. Yoruba legend dictates that Zangbeto dancers fall in to a trance which enables their bodies to be inhabited by spirits who possess special knowledge of the actions of people.
The festival culminates on a large beach that is washed by the waters of the Atlantic. Here delegations from different voodoo “communities”, or “parishes”, pay tribute to the “pope” of the voodoo and the most powerful wizards. The predominant colour worn is white, but many people dress with shining clothes or wear traditional masks.
In West Africa a fetish is a statue or an object that contains supernatural powers. Its powers derive from the consecration rite that is carried out by spreading the fetish of some substances while fetish priests or practitioners recite some prayers and offer sacrifices.
The fetishes are usually decorated with materials that include horns, shells, nails, feathers, mirrors, metal, string, varnishes, cloth, raffia, fur, beads and herbs. Sometimes eggs are broken on the fetish and all these elements have the goal of adding power to the fetish.
Fetishes propitiate health, happiness, and they are used to solve problems. Each fetish has its role, with some serving as protection from evil spirits and others serving as healing agents. Others are thought to bring happiness and fertility to a family.
THE TEMPLE OF PYTHONS
The practitioners of fetishes, or feticheurs as they are known, are some of the most spiritually powerful people in Benin. Presiding over the beliefs of nearly 80% of Benin’s population, during the annual Voodoo festival the most powerful fetish ritual takes place at Benin’s eccentric python temple. The Temple of Pythons is one of the most revered places in Voodoo belief as the pythons are considered to be important totems.
According to local legend, the king of Ouidah took refuge in a forest from those seeking to kill him during a war in the 18th century. When he was in hiding, pythons emerged from the forest and prevented him from being captured. To commemorate their role in his protection, he ordered the creation of three monuments, the most important of which is Ouidah’s Temple of Pythons.
Inside this concrete building there’s a pit filled with dozens of snakes either slinking around or tangled together. It is reported that approximately sixty pythons make this temple their home. The snakes aren’t fed but they are let out about once a week to prey upon chickens and mice. They occasionally make their way into local homes where they’re treated as ordinary house guests before they are returned to the temple.
SCARIFICATION IN WEST AFRICA
“A child has no life until it bears the scars of its ancestors” – Houeda saying
The traditional practice of scarification in West Africa is one that is rapidly dying out. For the traditional people of the Batammariba, Houeda, Otamari and other West African tribes, the practice of scarification is one of great importance, linking people not only to their tribe, but to their ancestors.
In West Africa, there are aesthetic, religious, and social reasons for scarification. For example, scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity; such permanent body markings may emphasize fixed social, political, and religious roles. Tattoos, scars, brands, and piercings, when voluntarily acquired, are ways of showing a person’s autobiography on the surface of their body to the world.
On this expedition we will explore the scarification of several tribal groups and engage with them for portraits while we learn about what their scars mean to them.
The Houeda people of Ouidah are the first ethnic group we will encounter that engage in body and facial scarification.
Starting from when Houeda are babies, scars are made on their faces. Although this might seem alien to our own cultures, the Houeda believs that scarring children – usually on their face – will connect them with their ancestors.
The children are given new names, their hair is shaved and they are taken to a convent where an oracle helps them to communicate with previous generations.
This practice is rapidly disappearing in the Houeda and other groups in Benin as it is considered as embarrassing by young people. Others, however, see this act as a show of their strength in tolerating pain and also as a connection to their siblings which comforts them.
GRAND POPO AND ABOMEY
On a narrow peninsula that is separated from Benin by the Mono River, two of the most obscure and little visited tribal groups in Benin, the Xwla and the Mina, live in their small fishing communities in a town called Grand Popo.
The Xwla, also known as Popo, reputedly came from Egypt and they arrived in Grand Popo after migrating there through Nigeria. They live in Grand Popo alongside the Mina people, who are thought to have been brought there by slavers at Elmina in Ghana.
From Grand Popo we will travel to the former seat of the Dahomey Kings at Abomey.
Abomey once had a terrible reputation for conquering its surrounding tribes and the lands they occupied. During the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’ the Dahomey held up a strong defence against the marauding French colonial armies until they were overcome by modern weaponry and had to surrender the city. In the fall of Abomey, King Gbehanzin set fire to the entire city, destroying all but two of its famous palaces which have been turned in to museums.
Benin’s rugged and spectacular Atacora mountains act as a climatic and cultural divide that separates the coastal humid plain from the desert like savannahs in the north of the country. Occupying these beautiful mountain slopes are the fascinating Taneka people who originally hid in these mountains to escape the ravages of the slave trade.
Another group that engages in scarring, the Taneka are a cluster of several smaller tribal groups that live together harmoniously in beautiful round clay houses, each topped with a conical roof of thatch.
Traditional healers, or spiritual dignities, are an important part of the animist beliefs of the Taneka. The spiritual dignitary possesses spiritual secrets and the villagers call him to ask for intercession in case of problems or illness, bringing him food offerings. He deprives himself of everything, except for a pipe that he smokes almost constantly, through which he finds inspiration and means of communication with the spirits. The spiritual dignitary knows also the power of medicinal plants and can prepare fetishes and amulets to be used as propitiatory objects.
THE REMOTE PEUL TRIBES OF NORTHERN BENIN
Over four days we will visit and explore the remote Peul communities around Natitingou in northern Benin.
Lying very close to the border of Togo, this region is home to four different cultures of Peul people, the Bariba, Waaba, Yom and Natimba. Each of these are recognised by their elaborate facial tattoos and often, with women, their tattooed bottom lips.
The Waaba in particular are fascinating. They live in the Atacora of northern Benin and, along with a completely unique language, they wear a series of ancient ritual scars running from their eyes down to their chins.
TATA SOMBA AND OTAMARI
Sophisticated and secluded, the Tata Somba and Otamari peoples are two of West Africa’s most intriguing ethnic groups. Living deep in the bush, the Tata Somba and Otamari people construct houses known as “tatas” that are so unusual in their design they have been listed as part of the World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2004.
Tatas (known locally as fortresses) consist of a ground floor which houses a kitchen and livestock owned by the family, the upper floor or roof designed to dry grains and to sleep. These castle-shaped houses also integrated the traditional spiritual beliefs of these people, protecting both themselves and their animals from natural and supernatural dangers. These homes may have developed as a means to resist night raids during the era when slave hunters in West Africa roamed to kidnap their victims for sale. Some feature wells and even external ladders that can be pulled up for self defence which means a family could survive for days on end, unable to be caught by slavers. Access to each Tata is via a tiny hole in the roof that acts as a doorway to the sky.
Unlike many African villages where the houses of families are clustered together, Tatas are more separate and each are surrounded by the fields of their family. When a location for a new Tata is being decided, the Tata Somba shoot an arrow in to the air. Where it lands will be the place a new Tata is built.
Both the Tata Somba and Otamari people are known for their traditional body scarring rituals, starting between the age of two and three. These special marks are a form of lifelong identification marks (tattoo ID), which identify a person as belonging to one’s tribe as well as more coded personal information. Additional marks are added at puberty, readiness for marriage and post-child birth as a form of visible communication.
Scarring in the Tata Somba people can take many forms in line with a variety of different meanings, the predominant marks indicating which tribal group a person belongs to.
Starting at the age of 2 or 3 years old, scars can also be created to indicate readiness for marriage, reaching puberty and mark a child’s birth. Some may even be given to protect against sickness or spiritual attacks.
They are also known for their elaborate hats made from woven grasses and crowned with the horns of an antelope.
Exploring these heavily tattooed and scarred tribal groups in their hand sculpted villages will be a highlight of our Benin & Togo photography tour.
Crossing the border in to eastern Togo, we will begin our journey through one of the most stunning landscapes of west Africa, towards another World Heritage site at Koutammakou.
This living cultural landscape is inhabited by the Batammariba people, whose remarkable earth tower houses, called Takienta, have become a symbol of Togo.
Koutammakou is an outstanding example of territorial occupation by people in constant search of harmony between man and nature.
However, the Koutammakou cultural landscape possesses a particular characteristic. Indeed, the “takienta”, a basic family dwelling where technical, utilitarian and symbolic elements are combined, is unique. Although many dwellings of the region possess fairly strong symbolic dimensions, none possess such a close interrelationship between symbolism, function and technique. This particular type of dwelling, which owes its aesthetic aspect to a variety of spectacular shapes, is the result of the creative genius of the Batammariba people.
It comprises tangible elements such as sacred rocks, forests, houses, fields, sources of construction materials, wild and domesticated animals, as well as intangible elements including beliefs, craft techniques, songs, dances and even traditional sports.
As one of the most primitive tribal groups in West Africa, the Batammariba engage in beautiful facial scarring whereby fine lines running in parallel are made as a trademark of their culture. During our exploration of Koutammakou we will search for elaborately scarred people to take portrait photographs.
THE KOTOKOLI PEOPLE OF SOKODE
After the relative quiet of Koutammakou we will return to the more bustling life of Togo’s second largest city, Sokode.
Sokode is home to the Kotokoli people, one of the most important Togolese ethnic groups. they are more properly identified as Tem or Temba, because of the Niger-Congo language they speak, the language tem precisely.
Temba in fact means “one who speaks tem”, the meaning of Kotokoli is instead to be found in the nickname that was given to this population or “koto kolim”.
According to their oral history, the Temba migrated from the current Burkina Faso between 1600 and 1700 and settled in the area where today there is the city of Sokode in Togo, along one of Togo’s ancient caravan routes.
The Kotokoli still maintain their ancient tradition of trade and Kotokoli traders regularly frequent local markets to exchange their goods, so that the tem is the most used language in commercial exchanges throughout Togo.
Today almost all the Kotokoli are Muslims, a religion that was introduced to them through contacts with the Hausa and Fulani herdsmen.
While visiting Sokode we will witness two of the most prominent ceremonies of the Kotokoli – the fire dance and the horse festival, where Kotokoli warriors dress up and decorate their horses to show off their power.
Only the finest Kotokoli warriors are able to participate in this festival where they parade with their dancing horses, displaying their powers and their expert handling of their horses. It showcases their triumphs over their enemies and at the same time honours their forefathers.
We will have a private photo session with the warriors of this dance while we are in Sokode.
As the sun sets over the town square of Sokode a great fire illuminates those present. Drums start to beat signalling the entrance of dancers, who in their trance state, jump into the embers, take them in their hands, put them in the mouth almost swallowing them, they pass it everywhere on their body without reporting any burns or giving signs of pain
The Dance of Fire is perhaps the most striking dance we will see on our tour, it is a traditional dance that is practiced both by the Kotokoli and by the neighbouring Bassari population.
Togo’s lively capital city is where our expedition will end. Arriving in from Sokode just after lunch we will have a chance to do some street photography around the colourful market that flanks the Sacred Heart cathedral.
While it initially seems chaotic, this vibrant and beautiful market is more orderly than it looks. It is supposed to be an indoor market covering three stories of a building but now it spills over in to the street with vendors selling everything imaginable.
To escape the activity of the market, we will also enjoy a small tour inside the cathedral before we depart to Cotonou where our expedition will end.
Benin and Togo Visas: It is important to consider applying for your Benin and Togo visas prior to you joining this expedition.
Benin – Tourists visas for most nationalities can be obtained using an e-visa system where you apply before you arrive and collect your visa at the airport in Cotonou. These visas can be applied for up to 90 days prior to your arrival, but no less than 7 days before the start of the expedition.
Togo – Tourist visas for 7 days can be issued at the border and also before you arrive from the Togolese Embassy in your home country. To ensure the smooth crossings between Benin and Togo on this expedition we suggest you apply for a Togo visa in your home country before you arrive in Benin.
Accommodation & Road Transport
Road transport is by modern minibuses.
Accommodation is in comfortable guest houses, home stays and hotels.
The walking on this tour is mostly easy.
The weather in Benin and Togo will be hot and often humid. There is likely to be a mixture of sunny and overcast conditions. Rain is unlikely.
For most photography of the people in West Africa, a travel lens of around 24-105mm on a full frame DSLR or mirrorless body will be essential. A wide angle lens of around 16mm or smaller will be perfect for working with the people inside smaller rooms.
If you prefer to photograph people from a distance, then please consider bringing a larger zoom or telephoto lens. It is our experience that sometimes people can feel a bit intimidated by large cameras and lenses so you may wish to bring a smaller sized zoom lens like a 100-400mm which doesn’t appear as intimidating as a large fixed focal length telephoto lens. Such a lens can also be useful for any wildlife we encounter.
If you bring a good quality bridge camera instead of a DSLR or mirrorless it will be best if it has an optical zoom of 18-20x or more, combined with a reasonable wide-angle at the other end of the zoom range.
If you have a phone or tablet that can be used for photography, you may find these quite useful around people.
Similarly if you have a Polaroid camera like the Leica Sofort or an Instax Mini, these are wonderful to have on hand when you spend time with tribal people. If you decide to bring one of these, please bring lots of film with you as the photographs you produce will be quite popular!
Be sure to bring plenty of spare battery power. On a number of nights there may be no access to power.
If you would like to talk over suitable equipment, please contact our office. We will be happy to advise.
BENIN & TOGO PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR: PRICE INFORMATION
Wild Images Inclusions: Our prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals ands entrance fees.
Our tour prices also include all tipping, including tips for local guides, drivers and local people who are willing to be photographed. Also included are some special photography session arrangement fees. The value of these inclusions on this Wild Images tour amounts to approximately $700.
Deposit: £680, $850, €750.
TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)
2021 (provisional): £5750, $7190, €6410 Cotonou/Cotonou.
Single Room Supplement: £410, $520, €460.
If you are travelling alone, the single supplement will not apply if you are willing to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.
This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.
Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.
BENIN AND TOGO PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR: ITINERARY
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 1: Our tour will begin with our arrival in to the capital of Benin, Cotonou, where we will stay for two nights. At dinner on our first night, we will have a briefing about our Benin and Togo expedition.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 2: On our first full day in Benin, we will be heading to the coastal town of Porto Novo where we will meet the local Goun and Yoruba people to learn about their culture and do portrait photography in traditional dress. We will enjoy lunch in a part of town surrounded by beautiful architecture and if time allows we will wander the streets radiating out from Porto Novo’s historical mosque for street photography. At dusk we will return to Cotonou.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Days 3-4: On Day 3 we will drive from Cotonou out to the floating village of Ganvie for a two nights stay. During our stay we will be exploring the waters of Lake Nokue by wooden pirogue, photographing the people of Ganvie, a 30,000 strong settlement of the Tofinu people, as they harvest fish and other produce from the lake.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 5: After a final morning shoot around Ganvie, we will return to dry land and travel to Ouidah to join the festivities of the annual Voodoo festival of Benin. We will stay at Ouidah for three nights.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 6: A full day exploring the streets and activities of the Voodoo festival, including dancers, rituals, the masked Egunguns and twirling Zangbetos. We will also visit the Portal of No Return monument, that commemorates the last stepping off point for slaves during the infamous but lucrative ‘triangle trade’.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 7: This morning we will have a private photography shoot of Voodoo performers in Ouidah. This organised event will allow us to capture the beauty and wonder of Voodoo in an easier environment than the throngs of guests we joined a day before at the festival. The rest of the day will be spent with the beautiful Houeda people as we learn about their culture and their intricate scarring rituals.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 8: After an early start we will drive north to the town of Grand Popo, where we will meet the Xla and Mina communities for photography. During the afternoon we will drive to Abomey for an overnight stay. At Abomey we will meet the Fon people.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 9: Today is mainly a travel day as we leave the coastal plains of Benin and drive over the mountains, stopping to visit the fascinating Taneka people en-route. We hope to visit some of the Taneka spirit designates and traditional healers here before we travel further up the mountains into the more arid region of northern Benin. We will reach the town of Natitingou, where we will stay for four nights, by the evening.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Days 10-12: Based in Natitingou, we will spend three days exploring the villages of four different Peul communities and also visiting the incredible World Heritage Site-listed huts created by the Tata Somba people in northern Benin.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Days 13-14: After crossing the border into Togo on Day 13, our destination will be the town of Kara, where we will stay for two nights. While based here we will explore another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mud villages of Koutammakou, the centre of the Batammariba culture in northern Togo. As we explore the beautiful villages of the Batammariba, we will also learn about their practices of intricate facial scarring.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Days 15-16: Leaving Kara on Day 15, we will drive south towards the large Togolese town of Sokode, where we will stay for two nights. While here we will attend the horse and fire dancers performed by the Kotokoli people of Togo.
Benin & Togo Photography Tour: Day 17: On the final day of our adventure we will leave Sokode and drive to Lomé, where we will enjoy some last street photography around the bustling central market near to the Sacred Heart cathedral of the city. From Lomé we cross the border back into Benin, where our tour ends this evening, following a final dinner, at Cotonou airport.