Ganvié stands in the middle of Lake Nokoue in Southern Benin, several miles from the nearest shoreline, and is the largest collection of lake dwellings in Africa. With a population of around 20,000 people, it is the largest lake village in Africa and is often referred to as the “African Venice“.
This village, in the middle of lake Nokoué, is not a recent construct. It was established in the sixteenth or seventeenth century by the Tofinu people, built on the lake to avoid Fon warriors capturing slaves for sale to European traders. The shallow waters and islands of Lake Nokoue were a haven. The Fon warriors were numerous and powerful and there was little other groups could do to defend themselves against the onslaught.
However, the Fon were forbidden by their religion to advance upon and water bound settlement. Any groups of people who lived on water or near water were, by the law of the Fon, safe. Runaway slaves and free natives formed communities deep within the forest as a means of escaping the brutality of Portuguese slavery. They created a new home for themselves, miles from the shore. The name “Ganvié” comes from the Fon language and it means literally “We’ve survived”.
The community is self-sustainable, survives on fishing (eating and selling) and various other sectors such as tourism, restaurants and souvenir shops. Ganvie’s 3,000 buildings include a post office, a bank, a hospital, a church, and a mosque. The village school is one of the few buildings not on stilts. Residents are currently bringing soil onto the lake to make a second island, which will serve as a cemetery.
Ganvie was submitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1996, and boat rentals on the lake have made it one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions.