Togo - Benin: People-to-People
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 8 - Abomey


Dassa-ABOMEY (90km, 57mi).  Relatively flat ride that tends to go fast.
Points of interest: Palaces, shrines, altars and monument of the Dahomey Kingdom

  Dassa-Zouma, Benin, casava / maniocAn interesting part of the African economy is how different villages will have their own specialization.  In the case of this village, perhaps Paouignan, it is a cassava or manioc product with dozens of vendors lining both sides of the road.  Though it is unlikely that anyone in town has academically studied it, this is a dramatic demonstration ofDassa-Zouma, Benin, casava / manioc comparative advantage, the cluster effect, the economy of agglomeration (or perhaps the diseconomy of agglomeration) and maybe the economies of scale.  When automobile dealers or shoe shops cluster it is fairly easy to determine at least some of the differences in the product (i.e. style, color, size) and there may be some information available about reputation.  In this market ALL of the product seems IDENTICAL so does that mean the only factor in a purchasing decision is reputation, or is it total random -- not something economist pretend to understand.

Bohicon, Benin, Ostrich FarmIn the category of curious and unique signs there is this one for an ostrich farm. Ostriches are suppose to be indigenous to West Africa, but much further north -- like a thousand miles north in Niger and Mali.  Though I haven't noticed ostrich in local markets but there is a world market for ostrich feathers, eggshell, leather and meat, so perhaps this is how this farm survives.

Bohicon, Benin, bicyclist hauling firewoodBohicon, Benin, bicyclist hauling firewoodSticks and small logs are collected for fire wood in the littoral forests across West Africa, but only in Benin does it seem to be as consistentlyBohicon, Benin, bicyclist hauling firewood transported by bicycle, and sometimes for pretty long distances.

Bohicon, Benin, women selling vegetablesAfter a relatively sparsely populated area, the next significant town Bohicon.  The intersection with the roads to Cotonou (the current economic capital), Abomey and the north, and the adjacent market, is a hubbub of activity.  It is colorful and diverse enough to warrant its own photo essay.  The local headwear rivaled the largest of sombreros in size.  Mobile merchants effortlessly balance oddly distributed loads on their heads and walk to and fro and hawk their wares.

Bohicon, Benin, women head carrying products for sale Bohicon, Benin, women head carrying products for sale Bohicon, Benin, women head carrying products for sale Bohicon, Benin, women head carrying products for sale 

Bohicon, Benin, mosque It is about ten kilometers from Bohicon to Abomey.  At least immediately adjacent to the road, for equally far, the land is built up into a strip city of mostly one-story, corrugated zinc roofed buildings.  A disproportional number of businesses seemed to be automobile oriented; tires, tire repair, mechanics, fuel, etc.  Just about midway is a large mosque raising to the heavens.

Abomey, Benin, monument to King GbehanzinAbomey, Benin, monument to King GbehanzinAt the more formal entrance to Abomey is a garden with a monument to King Gbehanzin (1889-1906).  He opposed the French colonial invasion and was sent into exile in Algeria when he was captured.

Palaces, shrines, altars and monument of the Dahomey Kingdom and Fon culture, of which there are many, are the primary draw for visitors.  Abomey, Benin, museumBecause rituals had to be performed for past Kings, new Kings would built a new palaces, usually nearby if not adjacent to the palace of the previous King.  There is now a cluster of palaces covering a large area of Abomey.  The palaces for the various kings can be distinguished from one another by the symbols theyAbomey, Benin, museum are decorated with.  Each king adopted his own collection of symbols that were representative of his reign.  The main palace is also a museum, but photographs are no longer allow inside so it sort of gets lost in a photo essay, though the were in 2000, with the photo to the right was taken.

Abomey, Benin, palaceLegend has it that while walking in the forest looking for water the daughter of  the King of Tado (a Yoruba) encountered a panther spirit.  From that union the princess gave birth to a son, Agasu, who became the first king of the Fon. Henceforth panther is the totem of the Fon.  The king had three sons who moved to Allada (Benin).  The oldest becomes King of Allada.  There was a falling out and middle son becomes King of Porto Novo.  The youngest becomes King of Abomey.

Throughout its history each Fon (king) had special symbols and proverbs associated with his rule. The symbols were used to decorate wall hangings, flags, umbrellas, buildings and other royal items during the rein of the Fon.  The Fons were as follows:

Abomey appliqué tapestry, royal symbols, BeninGangnihessou: 1600-1620, the King of Allada and the big brother of the first Fon (king) of Dahomey. Royal Symbols: bird and drum (“The bird spoke so loud that the drum sounded." And/or "The bird, called Saswé, is known for its greediness. Just like the prince, it will leave nothing to others.")

Dakodonou: 1620-1645. Royal Symbols: indigo jar & "briquettes" ("Dako killed his beautiful mother and the indigo jar rolled." Or "One day, Dakodonou took his enemy Aîzo by surprise when he was preparing indigo dye. After killing him, he put the body in the indigo jar and rolled it away.")

Abomey, Benin, shrineHouegbadja: 1645-1685. Royal Symbols: fish and wicker trap (As a prince, he once avoided a trap which had been set for him. Proverb: "The fish escaped the trap and returned plentifully".)  Houegbadja is the founder of the kingdom of Dahomey and the city of Abomey. It descends from the reigning dynasty of Tado (now Togo). It took the power of Guedevis (Yoruba) living on the plateau. Houegbadja established a state administration and consultation structures. He appointed ministers, a chief doctor, chief of the King and chief of religion. He pursued a policy of expansion, enlarges the kingdom to the rivers Zou and Coutto without war, with bans on arrangements with the natives. His symbols - the fish, trap, the hoe handle - mean that he would not enter a trap, he was cunning and always ready to defend himself.

Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer

[Above and below are ancestor figures from the family celebration -- see sidebar.]

 Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer

Akaba: 1685-1708, crowned at 50 years old. Royal Symbols: wild boar, chameleon & sword ("Slowly, carefully the chameleon went to the tree top." The chameleon stands for slowness, which is related to King Akaba’s long wait for the throne to be vacated. His predecessor was on the throne for 40 years.)

Agadja: 1708-1741  Initially resisted the slave trade, then became a major slaver.  Lost war with Oyo in 1720.  Paid tribute until 1818. Royal Symbols: boat (personne ne pourra mettre le feu a l'abord tombe tout entier jusqu'aux ranches.)  It was under his rule that the kingdom came into contact with with the Europeans, who arrived on caravel ships.

Tegbessou: 1741-1774. Royal Symbols: buffalo wearing a tunic dressed up ("Once the buffalo is dress it is very difficult to undress him."  This refers to the story according to which Tegbessou's enemies put an herbal potion that would cause severe itching on the royal costume, so when he put it on he would have to remove it immediately. This would have led to an on-the-spot selection of a new king. Warned in time, Tegbessou took the necessary precautions.)  As Prince Tegbessou knew that part of an annual tribute required by the Yoruba of Oyo (Nigeria), remained in the city a long time.  Tegbessou King undertook some successful wars against the Mahi and Nago, but failed against the Yoruba. Under his reign Whydah became a thriving port and second city of the Kingdom.

Kpeingla: 1774-1789. Royal Symbols: sparrow and gun, dog defending territory (the stone in the water doesn't fear the cold.) He strengthened the army and conquered the coastal cities, now located in Nigeria and Togo. He increased Dahomey involvement in the slave trade. He worked to expand and consolidate the frontiers of the kingdom. He sent his army against the Hwedie, the Ouéménou and the Yoruba of Badagri. Victories and failures marked the path of army which included a corps of Amazons.

Abomey, Benin, palaceAgonglo: 1789-1797. Royal Symbols: pineapple (Andean fruit) (the thunder hit the palm tree, but the pineapple dodged it).  The pineapple, which stands for prudence. He was the first of the Dahomeyan king to marry a European woman.  He attended to the well being of the population through a series of reforms: He changed the system of import, strengthened the voodoo cult, supported the arts, and reorganized the structure of the crafts. During his reign the decorations drawn on walls and pillars of the palaces were changed into low relief, which complemented the talking drum, the official songs and the appliquéd cloth. He opened the Kingdom to Christian and Muslims missionaries. He initiated several war toward its neighbors; the Mahis and the Ouéménous

-- (1798-1817): Despotic king written out of history for being internally violent and not interested in expansionism.

Ghezo: 1818-1858, 40 years, 40 wars, “killer of elephants”. Royal Symbols: buffalo without dress (the buffalo can go through a town without hitting anything). Ghezo ascended to the throne after he overthrew his brother, Adandozan, in a coup d'état. The traditional stories state that Adandozan was a cruel ruler, who raised hyenas to which he would throw live subjects for amusement. He is never included in the Dahomey appliqués. He is regarded as a great reformer. He reorganized the structure of the state and the army, worked on the unification of the Kingdom, and especially developing the production of palm oil in the context of the abolition slavery. He undertook wars almost every year and finally liberated the Kingdom from paying tribute to the Oyo (Nigeria). In 1827, he defeat and enslave Savi (Ouidah). He gave permission to the Catholic to build a cathedral in village town center. After returning from a war with heavy losses he was killed.

Abomey appliqué tapestry, Glele royal symbols, BeninGlele: 1858-1889. Royal Symbols: lion (the teeth of the lion are pushed and feared also). He confronted  the interventionism of the Europeans . He consolidated the dominance over the Dahomey region by conducting more than 30 military campaigns. He failed against Porta Nova, but never the less King Toffa of Porta-Novo requested protection from the French. King Glele expanded Agbodo" including Dido the source of the city. He developed cultural practices like music, dances and ritual ceremonies.

Gbehanzin: 1889-1906, opposed colonial invasion. Exiled by French and died in Algeria. Royal Symbols: shark and egg in hand (the world takes the egg that the land desires)   He is represented by a shark and an egg. The proverb: “The world has produced an egg the weight of which can be felt only by the earth”, refers to the fact that much was expected of him when he took over the throne. He was successful in battles against the French, but was finally defeated in 1894.

Abomey, Benin, palaceAgo-Li-Agbo: 1894-1900.  Enthroned by French and later exiled. Royal Symbols: leg kicking a rock, bow (a symbol of the return to traditional weapons under the new rules established by the colonial administrators), and a broom (Allada stumbles but it does fall.)  Enthroned by the French, on the advice of his soothsayer, he stood in the palace of his ancestor by the Baobab with his head down. He commenced to restore the palace of Glele and Guezo. He appointed his brothers as heads Townships. Agoli-Agvo could no longer reign as his predecessors. On January 29, 1894 General Dodds gave a public reading of 16 articles regulating political life in what remains of the Kingdom. Ago-Li-Ago was in disgrace because he took his role seriously. He fell February 12, 1900, shortly after that he was exiled to Gabon. He returned to Dahomey in 1910, lived 15 years in Savé, and 2 years at Mougnon before returning to his private palace, Djegbe, in 1927.

Abomey, Benin, buvertte, drink shop Abomey, Benin, street sceneCircling around the palaces is the rest of Abomey.  Much of what is found is common to towns in this area.  There are hardware stores, dry goods stores, motor bike repair shops, buvettes (drink stands), markets,Abomey, Benin, street scene, fuel for sell Abomey, Benin, fresh orange juice sellerschools, a lot of government agencies, offices for non-governmental organizations from dozens of countries, fuel sellers (out of glass bottles on the roadside) and health care, both western and traditional.

Abomey, Benin, street scene Abomey, Benin, street scene 

Abomey, Benin, altarAlso around the palaces were various other monuments, shrines and altars. 

The Temple of Ahouissou (left) honors Ahouissou, the originator of Zomadonou worship, established by King Tegbessou (1742-1774). Ahouissou, was aAbomey, Benin, shrine hunter and descendant of King Houegbadja: (1645-1685).  As best as I can tell, one day Ahouissou met three people (the son of King Akaba (1685-1708), Kpelou, the son of the King Agadja (1708-1741), Adomou, and the son of King Tegbessou (1742-1774)) on the edge of Ouémé River, who presented themselves as Zomadonou.  The three son had died; two were badly formed, and now lived in the River. They demand to be reinstalled in their families as deities. Ahouissou become the first priest of the royal cult, which is devoted to malformed children and includes a system of 14 royal temples.

Abomey, Benin, monument to the Germans-Benin friendshipOne is a monument to the Germans-Benin friendship (the boys are not a permanent part of the monument.) The German element of the monument seems to be a Maltese Cross.  The Beninoise element of the monuments seems to be represented by symbols of the Abomey Kings.

Abomey, Benin, French colonial era buildingDuring the colonial period, from 1895 until to independence in 1960, Abomey had a substantial official French presences. So that they could properly care for themselves the French built an official administrative quarter with large white brick buildings at the end of long drives.  Most local people were forbidden from entering much of this section of town prior to independence.   


Ancestors Ceremony

Abomey is a town the is steeped in tradition.  Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer
One of those traditions is annual festivals and ceremonies to honor their ancestors.  Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer
At least through the first decade of the 21st century these were being realized for the benefit of the families and clans, not modified for the appeal to or perform for tourists. Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, drummers In fact it is not even clear that outsiders are welcome.  Foreigners were not the only ones with dubious status. Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer The perimeter of the courtyard was also population with younger people who were trying to get a glimpse of the actions but were also ready to run if the dancing figure whirled their way or one of the enforcers waved a switch in their directions.  

After arriving at the edge of one ceremony we were spotted by one man who thought that the group of visitors should be in the V.I.P. section.  Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, elders / audience
As soon as he started to lead some of us there other men intervene to oppose it.  For a moment some of us were literally in the middle of a tug-a-war.  The physical jostling ended quickly but the confusion continued as the men debated about the groups status and an appropriate location.  As this went on more men were drawn into the discussion.  It is not clear how they arrived at a decision, but after a modest delay we were whisked to the front.Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer
Even with a nearly front row seat it was hard to photograph the event: There was action in too many directions, the movement was fast, sometimes the dancers were too close and the light was waning.Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer
The central figures in the performance are the spirits of the ancestors (masked and general dressed in elaborate clothes), the musicians and their associates, who assisted the spirit and kept order among the spectators. Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer When the masks danced layers upon layers of material would fly up.  It is hard to imaging how much the clothing weights, how hot it is to wear and how hard it is to dance.

Abomey, Benin, Family Ancstors Ceremony, dancer
After a long interval of watching the performance, about as abruptly as we were ushered in, we were whisked out -- almost at a run.  It was never explained why, but evident whatever was next in the progression of the event, it was sacred and outsiders and the uninitiated weren't suppose to see it.  A lot of the young people were scurrying away at the same time.

Amazon Ceremony

A second ceremony in another part of town was dominated by women Abomey, Benin, Women's Society (Amazons) ceremony associated with the 'Amazon' court -- but still the crowd control was handled by men.  And Abomey, Benin, Women's Society (Amazons) ceremony visitors were again given preferential seating.  The culminating event of the ceremony was the Abomey, Benin, Women's Society (Amazons) ceremony, cow to be sacrificed. sacrificing of a white cow.  As the time approached the women formed such a dense wallAbomey, Benin, Women's Society (Amazons) ceremony around the animal that the audience was not privy to the ritual.Abomey, Benin, Women's Society (Amazons) ceremony

The Amazon corps was established by Queen Hangbe (1708-1711). They provide security and assault in the final wars. King Guezo (1818-1858) reorganized this army. The court at the time of Guezo was greater than today, with 200 Amazons. They represented 30% of the army. They were recruited between 12 and 14 years old, in villages and urban centers and among the captives of war and selected according to their physical stoutness. The training took place at Zassi in the former palace of the King.


 Next dispatch.



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