Ghana: Accra

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I’m heading to Sierra Leone tomorrow, and I still haven’t posted photos from the Ghana portion of my vacation, nor from the Casamance region of Senegal, where I went for work a couple of weeks ago. In an effort to catch up,  here is a quick and dirty recap of Accra (and you can read a few stories about some of the women I met in the Casamance here).  Continue reading

Togo: Lomé

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At the border between Benin and Togo, I got out of the car and walked across the border on foot. There were no problems, just a little bit of a wait. My driver, who had some sort of laissez-passer travel document, went across in his car and met me on the other side.  IMG_6043

From there it was about an hour and a half to Lomé, where we parted ways. I had a day and a half to wander around the city before I was due to cross the border into Ghana and head to Accra. Continue reading

Benin: the slave trade in Ouidah

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Well. We have reached the point in my trip when it turns abruptly from the (mostly) life-affirming wonders of Vodoun culture to the despair-inducing horrors of human trafficking. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, as many as 12.5 million people were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World between 1501 and 1866. Almost 2 million of those people embarked from the area around Ouidah called the Bight of Benin, and Ouidah itself was one of the busiest slave ports on the African continent. An estimated 12-13 percent of those who boarded the slave ships did not survive the Middle Passage. Continue reading

Dakar’s stunning railroad station

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On Saturday when I took a walk downtown, I got a closer look at the renovated railroad station, which I had peeped from the car a few weekends ago. Here are some better pictures than the ones I posted then.

The station was inaugurated in 1914 and went out of service about 100 years later after both the Dakar-Bamako and Dakar-St.Louis passenger trains stopped running. (I believe the suburban commuter line moved to a station a little further north but I’m not entirely sure.)

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For a few years, there were plans to demolish the station and build a park there instead, but thankfully that would-be travesty never came to pass. Instead, the government decided to renovate the station and make it the southern terminus of the new express commuter line that runs through the suburbs and ends at the just-finished airport an hour outside of town.

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I’ve also heard about plans to rehabilitate and relaunch the Dakar-Bamako line, which would delight me should it ever actually happen. I have seen footage of the 40+ hour journey and it looks like the stuff of dreams (punctuated by extreme boredom, fatigue, and discomfort). For now, I’m overjoyed to see my favorite building in town being resuscitated and returned to its former splendor.

P.S. Chemins de fer (literal translation: path of iron) is such a beautiful way to say railroad, don’t you think?

Good things happen in threes

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I just realized that yesterday was the three year anniversary of the day I first landed in Dakar, bleary- and wide-eyed in equal measure. I’m so, so grateful to be back, especially in February when the weather is (mostly) lovely. During this time of year, the Harmattan winds do have a tendency to sweep in and turn the sky yellowish and cover everything with dust for days at a time. That’s no fun, but knowing it’s sand from the Sahara desert being deposited on us is pretty neat. I also find it neat that even though I’ve only spent about 15 months in Dakar total, this is my third February here.

I’m spending this weekend prepping for my first shoot of this trip (happening on Monday), as well as fleshing out my ideas for a documentary that is getting me very excited even though I haven’t even asked the intended subjects of the film for permission to make it yet. Getting ahead of myself is my M.O. in life, and while it has its downsides it also gives me lots of fodder for fantastic daydreams, which I enjoy.

On that note, I will now turn from words on (digital) paper to images on digital video.

But first, just to complete the theme, three beautiful buildings I passed in the downtown neighborhood of Plateau this morning (the one at the top of this post was not so much beautiful as incredibly bizarre – note the ceramic swans!). Have a lovely weekend, and see you next week!

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Benin: Ouidah for the Revenant

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Okay, time to wrap up the Vodoun festival, with my favorite part: the Revenant, also known as the Egungun. Several years ago, it was seeing the gorgeous (uncredited – sorry!) photo of Revenant masqueraders below that made me put the Vodoun festival at the very top of my bucket list, though at the time I didn’t know what they were called or anything about them, and I expected to see them throughout the festival.

Benin's Mysterious Voodoo Religion Is Celebrated In Its Annual FestivalIn fact, they made only a few appearances, and only one of which I caught. On the evening of the 10th, a much smaller crowd of people than had been at the festival proper gathered in a dirt field in the center of Ouidah to watch the spectacle. From the moment I saw them I was transported with awe – although everything I had witnessed so far had been mind-blowing, these cultural masterpieces were what I had come for.

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Benin: Ouidah for the Vodoun Festival

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After I posted about the Fête du Vodoun yesterday I realized that I never actually explained what it is. A national holiday held every January 10 in Benin since the 1990s, it is a day for Beninois to celebrate – and to share with the outside world – the Vodoun religion practiced by a large percentage of the country (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 20-60%).

According to this informative 2012 article from the New York Times (that still rings true to my experience in 2019),

Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries, this ancient belief system still has millions of adherents along West Africa’s former Slave Coast, from Ghana to the Yoruba-speaking parts of Nigeria, but especially in Benin. A succession of dictatorships suppressed vodun after independence, but in 1996 Benin’s democratic government officially decreed vodun a religion, and ever since, thousands have openly practiced it.

The Fête du Vodoun is, in effect, a show of pride in practices, beliefs, and a culture that endured despite endless attempts to wipe it out. Though festivities take place all over the country, the apex is in Ouidah, which is considered the heart and soul of Vodoun. It is around Ouidah that Vodoun first developed hundreds of years ago.

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