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Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Bit of Culture

One of the best places to learn about the culture of Benin is the History Museum in the town of Ouidah, about 1 hour west of Cotonou. Ouidah was the center of the West African slave trade and thus a visit to the museum is very sobering. It is located inside an old Portuguese fort where thousands of slaves were held prior to being sent to the Americas.  At the museum you hear about the crocodile filled moat around the fort which prevented slaves from escaping and you see the small courtyard that housed hundreds of slaves at a time before they were forced to march to the coast to board the ships. Along the way from the museum to the coast you can see the "tree of forgetting." Slaves were forced to walk around it 7 times as a symbol of leaving their old life behind; they were instructed to forget everything about their previous life. After a 4 km walk to the coast you can see "The Gate of No Return," a monument built to commemorate all the West Africans captured as slaves.  

Although today they have a president, historically Benin was ruled by kings, many of whom profited from the slave trade. The quilt below shows each king, the years of their reign and an animal or other symbol which represents them.

My favorite part of my visit was learning about the Beninese pictorial proverbs. The well-known symbols are sometimes used to send messages. Below you can see an example of 6 embroidered proverbs with the explanation that goes with it.  

We don't count the toes of a person with only 9.
Not all truth needs to be said aloud. 

The hand that gives is always on top.
It is better to give than receive. 

Before acting, weigh the pros and cons. 

There are never two captains in the same boat. 

The fire of a pipe may go out, but the eternal light is never extinguished.
The reed bends but does not break. 

A snake attacks a frog, but a passerby arrives and the frog is saved. 
In case of danger, God will bring you a Savior. God does not forget anyone. 

There are many more pictorial proverbs!
Entrance to the Ouidah History Museum with friends Floor and David

Inside of the Portuguese Fort
Cannons: this photo is for you, Dad!

Visiting the Fort with my friends, the Barki Family!
Behind us is the courtyard where as many as 500 people spent days or even
months waiting for the ships that would take them to the Americas.
The Gate of No Return