The Natitingou museum is located in an old French colonial house, built in 1915. As usual with museums in Benin, you get a much better experience if you hire a guide to explain the exhibits, although the guide we had didn’t speak English so Alex translated his explanations for me.
The museum mainly details the Somba people’s lifestyle and the different types and styles of Tatas in the North of Benin which are –
Tata Otammari, featuring drainage pipes.
Tata Kouba, 3 storeys.
Tata Ossori, 2 storeys.
Tata Otchaou (Bukumbi) with decks and a centre hut for old people.
Tata Tajaba, no longer built.
Tata Berba, no longer built but had no door for extra security, and the family had to climb in on a ladder which was then pulled in.
There is a section on musical instruments which include violins, castanets, tambour drums to announce a death and tamtam drums for festivities, horns and flutes.
Jewellery is worn by men and women. The men wear arm bracelets and collars made from snakeskin, ivory and bone. Somba men were always armed with swords and knives and particularly bows and arrows.
Circumcision is an important ritual and is done at age 18. The men wear a special cover to prevent infection and help the healing process and after the ceremony they are given a calabash and a whistle.
Hats are also important to the Somba and each type of hat is used for a particular purpose. The chief priest wears a fox fur hat, a bride wears a cowrie shell hat with horns which is given to her by the groom to indicate she is to be treasured.
The Somba are wrapped in a cloth for burial with their feet exposed. Men have the left hand exposed and women the right hand. The body is carried around the village until the spirit decides it is time for burial.
There is also a room in the museum dedicated to slavery.
The Tata Somba area is a good place to see Shea butter being made. Shea butter is an oily textured cream produced from a nut that grows on a tree, in many North and West African countries. It is used for cooking and household purposes instead of palm oil in countries where it is plentiful and can also be used in the production of chocolate. Its main use is in cosmetics because of it’s amazing moisturising and healing properties and it has been used to treat eczema, psoriasis, dry skin and sunburn. Many Western cosmetics now contain Shea butter.
In the village we visited, Kouba, the women produce the Shea butter. First the nuts are heated in a large oven to soften them, then they are pounded to a cream and left to set to a buttery texture and turn yellowish white. A pan of Shea butter can be bought for $10 in the villages – I bought a portion for $2. It is extremely useful to bring your own re-sealable plastic bags. The ones they give at the airport to carry your cosmetics through in hand luggage are ideal.
The Tata Somba houses have 3 storeys and are made from mud bricks.
Originally they were built for defence against rival tribes and the slave traders but the Somba have continued their traditional way of building and when you visit one of their homes you can see why. They are extremely spacious and practical, enabling a large family to live very comfortably without getting in each other’s way.
The father sleeps on the ground floor in a separate room, as the animals are brought in at night to prevent them wandering away or getting stolen. Also on the ground floor is the grinding stone for grinding cassava and millet and an area for fetishes.
The next floor contains the kitchen which is separate from the living and sleeping areas.
The top floor terrace is the highlight. Reached via a tree branch ladder the terrace contains the bedrooms of the mother and children and the grain stores all neatly arranged around the terrace with a view of the village and the fields beyond. The rooms have sliding reed doors for privacy and when the husband wants to visit his wife he has to knock 3 times on the door.
The grain stores contain dried cassava, millet and any other foodstuffs that can be stored for months when fresh food is not so plentiful. The stores built high and are totally enclosed to prevent insects or small animals getting inside. They are reached by a tree ladder and have a conical top that lifts off for access to the inside. Inside all the produce is separated into sections divided by wood.
There are many different variations on the Tata, depending on which village you visit – see the tip on the Natitingou museum for more types of Tatas. We visited Kouba village.
If you like swimming on a quite place don't miss the Kota Falls (Chutes de la Kota). There is a small water bassin down of the falls that is perfect for swimming. Because there are very few tourists in this part of the world, you are almost always alone. During the tourist season (december-may) there is a small fee to visit the falls (200 CFA per visitor = 0,30 euro) and you can have a cool (expensive) drink after your visit.
Sometimes it was hard to get around without basic French, but at other times the signs were quite obvious!
When I decided to urinate against this wall, I somehow understood that I shouldn't do it here!
Like anywhere in Togo and Benin, mototaxi's are abundant in Natitingou. They are an excellent and cheap means to cover short distances.
You can distinguish taxi moto's from others looking at the driver. The taxi drivers always wear green and yellow shirts with a number printed on it.
If you need one, you just sign with your right hand. The fees are really low, around EUR 0,20 for a cityride.
I was a bit more careful using them downhill on a dirt road during heavy rains, though...!!
More a "must taste" than a must see, on the way to / from Natitingou, some villages specialized in producing cheese.
The cheese is sold along the main road; if you stop, the women come to offer you some cheaply.
Most tourists don't leave the region without having visited some of the famous Tata Somba Houses.
Probably the best place to organise a visit to a traditional homestead is Boukoumbe, about an hour west of Natitingou. In Boukoumbe you will be approached by guides (at least I was), and if I'm not mistaken, there's even some kind of Ecotourism project where you can meet guides and obtain information.
As I reached Boukoumbe by foot from Nadoba (Togo), where I was invited in a Tata already and saw many others, I didn't take the effort of organise a tour here. By the way if you walk to Nadoba (no border checkpoint here), you'll pass a lot of traditional farms.
We visited the spectacular (at least in the raining season) and attractive Kota Falls as a daytrip from Natitingou.
Not that they were very easy to reach, though. The moto taxi dropped us after 20 minutes at the junction on the main road, from where it's still a 6 km walk on a dirt road. Before reaching the Falls we paid a small entrance fee after which we followed a small path down to a rather wild stream.
There we noticed a "To the falls" sign at the opposite of the stream (that thundered down some 30 meters ahead). We had to cross it! It all looked too dangerous, until the caretaker came by with a helping hand and navigated us wading through the water to the other side.
A nice, short path along a small stream guided us to the pool below the very voluminous Falls. It was nice to sit there for a while, but I didn't swim after reports of nasty insects in the pool.
Then it started to rain, we waited all day for it to stop in the caretaker's summer hut. It didn't. Fortunately a wealthy local family came by to picnic, they shared their food and their car, how nice!!
The most spectacular mountain scenery can be found along the Natitingou - Boukoumbe road, there are some brilliant viewpoints, but the hills around town are also appealing for a some unstructured hiking.
We followed a bushpath behind the fancy Tata Somba Hotel uphill, and were treated on very nice views over town!
I really enjoyed staying 3 nights in the relaxed town of Natitingou (pop. 60000).
People are hospitable and polite, the climate is moderate, there are some nice bars, a long string of decent food stalls around the taxi park and even a cinema!!
I lodged in La Vieuw Cavalier, very decent rooms for about EUR 8. It is located a bit uphill out of the town centre, but security is no problem here so you can walk around even at night without a problem (if you bring a torch, though)!
A highlight is the local museum, people say.
After the daytime rains, the sky usually clears up a bit and colours beautiful as the sun set.
It is great to climb uphill and overlook town while the sun goes down behind the hills!!