Culture, Life

Benin's Ganvie: The Venice of Africa

Not so long ago, most of the village's 30,000 residents had relied on fishing to make their living

10.11.2014
Benin's Ganvie: The Venice of Africa

By Serge David

COTONOU, Benin

 Resting along the northern coast of Benin's Lake Nokoué is a quaint fishing village that over the years has become one of the country's most alluring tourist destinations.  Ganvie – whose restaurants, bars, bungalows and hotels are situated on the water – has come to be known as the "Venice of Africa."

Not so long ago, most of the village's 30,000 residents had relied on fishing to make their living. However, with tourists now flocking to the once-quiet village, tourism has gradually replaced fishing as Ganvie's main source of revenue.

According to Aholou Tadjin, a voodoo cult leader in his 60s, "Ganvie," which in domestic language means "We are saved," welcomed its first inhabitants in the 18th century, who came after fleeing tribal warfare in the region of Adja Tado (the ancient kingdom of Dahomey).

"To live on the water, they had to develop a distinct form of architecture: houses on stilts," Gregory Hontonou, who has specialized in building such houses on stilts for a decade, told Anadolu Agency.

Ganvie has been dubbed the "Venice of Africa" not only because it is built on water, but also because of its diverse historical, cultural and touristic sites.

The lakeside village is known for several lucrative activities, most important of which are tourism and fishing. Many people, however, are increasingly losing interest in the latter.

"The fishing here in Ganvie is no longer attractive. We sell a basket of 20 large fish sometimes for less than 4,000 CFA francs (roughly $7.60), which wasn't the case two years ago when you could expect up to 10,000 CFA francs (roughly $19)," said Ahonon, a village fishmonger whose husband is a fishermen.

According to Ahonon, the plight of fishing in Ganvie has forced many fishermen to quit the profession.

"We fishermen's wives want the state to help our spouses change jobs; to recruit them to serve the nation in other areas other than fishing. We're suffering to make ends meet in Ganvie," she said.

Norbert Avocétien, a fisherman and member of the regional council, said that nearly 90 percent of the village's population relied on what their fishing nets brought in – fish, shrimp, crab, among other things – to feed their families throughout the year.

"Today, fishing has become less attractive because it brings in much less money," he said.

According to Avocétien, fishermen now must spend considerable time on the water just to get a meager yield.

"If fishing is really successful, I can sell up to 5,000 CFA francs (roughly $9.53) of fish per day. But sometimes I come home empty-handed," he lamented.

He went on to list the problems plaguing the local fishing industry: Lake Nokoué was filled with sand, which drives the fish away; the number of fishermen had increased dramatically in recent years; and fishing implements had become less efficient over time.

"To buy a quality fishing net from Cotonou or Nigeria, it will cost you up to 80,000 CFA francs (some $152). This is impossible to sustain, given that fish revenue is dwindling," he said, going on to urge the government to take steps to revive the floundering industry.

Unlike fishing, meanwhile, tourism in Ganvie has shown considerable potential.  

"About 10,000 tourists visit the lakeside village of Ganvie annually, which brings in up to 30.5 million CFA Francs (about $58,100) per annum," Maxime Saizonou, an official at the government-run Tourism Administration, told AA by phone.

"With tourism flourishing, accompanying trades are also developing in Ganvie, such as [tourist] guides, hotels, restaurants, coffee bars, art markets and ecotourism," Saizonou said.

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