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Africa’s largest town on stilts, Ganvié, which literally means “We’ve survived”, came into existence during the Portuguese slave raids

David Goran

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“.

Ganvié is up to five hundred years old. Photo Credit

The village is up to five hundred years old. Photo Credit

 

The entire village stands on slits in the middle of the lake. Photo Credit

The entire village stands on slits in the middle of the lake. Photo Credit

 

the largest community known to live on water. Photo Credit

The largest community known to live on water. Photo Credit

 

Sometimes called the Venice of Africa. Photo Credit

Sometimes called the Venice of Africa. Photo Credit

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.

All of Ganvie's houses, shops and restaurants are built on wooden stilts several feet above the water. Photo Credit

All of Ganvie’s houses, shops and restaurants are built on wooden stilts several feet above the water. Photo Credit

 

Houses in Ganvie. Photo Credit

Houses in Ganvie. Photo Credit

 

Regular house. Photo Credit

Regular house. Photo Credit

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”.

Ganvié came into existence during the Portuguese invasion looking for slaves. Photo Credit

Ganvié came into existence during the Portuguese invasion looking for slaves. Photo Credit

 

Religious beliefs prevented the Fon from fighting on the sacred lake, so the lagoon became a haven for the Tofinu. Photo Credit

Religious beliefs prevented the Fon from fighting on the sacred lake, so the lagoon became a haven for the Tofinu. Photo Credit

 

Anyone, from young children, women and groups of individuals are moving around with grace in their boats. Photo Credit

Anyone, from young children, women and groups of individuals are moving around with grace in their boats. Photo Credit

 

Ganvie Market. Photo Credit

Ganvie Market. Photo Credit

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.

Ganvié being fully sustainable, the only time villagers will go ashore is to sell their fish at the market. Photo Credit

Ganvié being fully sustainable, the only time villagers will go ashore is to sell their fish at the market. Photo Credit

 

A bustling town of over 30,000 residents who live in bamboo huts built on stilts. Photo Credit

A bustling town of over 30,000 residents who live in bamboo huts. Photo Credit

 

Doctor's post. Photo Credit

Doctor’s post. Photo Credit

 

There are lots of boats hand-carved from wood trunks. Photo Credit

Hand-carved boats from wood trunks. Photo Credit

 

since 1996 it has been listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Photo Credit

Since 1996 it has been listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Photo Credit

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.