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This is the old Palace of King Toffa and his ancestors, who can be traced back to King Te-Agbalin in 1688. King Toffa signed the Palace and his kingdom over to the French in 1883 for protection against the Kings of Dahomey, who would have sold the people as slaves. Under the French rule, although the Kings still existed, Porto Novo was ruled by superior chiefs.
The last King lived here until the 1970's when it was opened as a museum. Every year a ceremony is held here in honour of the ancestors.
The palace complex has a lovely courtyard with a collection of scrap metal sculptures. Inside the history and lifestyle of the Kings is documented. It is a good idea to get a guide as they are very good here and give very thorough explanations of what you are looking at. The exhibits are quite sparse but the guides will explain a lot about the daily life of the Royal Family and the workings, customs and rules of the Palace including -
The Kings relied heavily on Juju (magic) and had special messenger sticks to communicate with their subjects which their messengers took through the town.
The Queen Mother is not actually the mother of the King, but is chosen by a Fa reader (fortune teller) from the Kings relations.
King Toffa had between 40 and 100 wives. They always prepared his food, as they had to swear an oath not to poison him on their marriage, so the King felt safe to eat food prepared by his wives.
When a King died, some of his wives were expected to volunteer to be killed to accompany him to the spirit world.
The Kings body is buried in the Palace but nobody knows where it is, as the people who buried him have to die too. The King is not said to be dead and is believed to be helping the new King rule – hence the importance of the ancestors.
There is a room in the Palace called Chambre Noir which contains only a calabash filled with liquid. If a King loses his honour he has to go into the room, drink from the calabash and stay there for 2 days when he will die. The last superior chief under the French died this way.
The museum is open 9-6 and has a small shop. As with all the museums in Benin I visited, you cannot take photographs inside.
Written May 18, 2008
This museum is located in an old colonial building and gives an excellent insight into Beninese culture.
The displays on the ground floor explain the importance of birth, life and death on society. There is a good explanation of the culture and importance of twins, and explanations and examples of Fa readings (a type fortune telling), as well as examples of objects of everyday life and the Soto drums played when a parent dies – played with the right hand when a father dies and the left when a mother dies.
The basement floor is devoted to the importance of the Yoruba masks and their messages. The Yoruba “Guelede” masks all have a message or tell a story and were used in ceremonies to communicate with the ancestors. They are still used for special occasions. There are many examples of masks and the exhibits are well laid out with descriptions. Examples of the messages the masks were used to convey would be to warn against mockery, to guard against hypocrisy or to emphasise the importance of courage and unity. Some of the masks are really large and are more like massive hats. As well as the older traditional masks there are masks with modern messages – such as importance of vaccinating children against disease.
This is a fascinating museum and well worth a visit. Descriptions are in French so an English speaking guide is worthwhile to understand the exhibits.
See my Benin pages for more information on Twins and Fa readings
Open 8.30 to 6.
Updated May 17, 2008
When you have had enough history, a visit to the Songhai centre will bring you bang up to date. This is a centre for sustainable agriculture and it is well worth spending at least a couple of hours here. The Songhai centre specialises in production, development, research and training in sustainable agriculture in order to help African farmers to run viable and profitable farms. The first one opened in 1985 and there are now 6 Songhai centres in Benin and 1 in Nigeria. Profits from the sale of goods produced here are used to train African farmers and assist them in setting up farms in areas where they are needed.
Many types of fruit and vegetables are grown here, animals are raised and there is a fish farm, water filtration plant and fruit juice production, as well as soya, cassava and palm oil. You can see how each section creates the bio-fuels to allow the other sections to function and how everything is used with no waste.
Look out for the NERICA rice (New Rice for Africa) which grows here – a hybrid adapted to grow in harsh African conditions of sub- Saharan Africa and developed by a Beninese company. It was created from a blend of Asian and African rice and designed to give high yield, shorter growing times, higher protein content and be very hardy and resistant to disease. It can grow in most conditions and is specifically aimed at the millions of small and subsistence farmers in Africa.
After the tour you can sample the delicious organic produce in the restaurant.
Written May 17, 2008
This is the largest and the smartest Voodoo temple I saw in Benin. The others were in rural areas and very small and simple.
This one is dedicated to Zangbeto, the night watchman, who is one of the most powerful and popular Voodoo gods and who has temples in many towns and villages throughout the country. In the days before the police, the Zangbetos were responsible for keeping law and order.
You cannot go inside the temple - most of the Voodoo temples forbid entry to non-members, particularly the Zangbeto temples, which do not even allow women in.
Written May 14, 2008
Porto-Novo is the administrative capital of Benin, although Cotonou is larger and houses all of the embassies and the NGO-ex-pat. community. But for a real tastef Benin, come to Porto-Novo. It's best to just hang out and watch the world go by. One of the best places to do that is in Place Bayol a shady park in the city center. Sip a Beninoise (beer) and relax. For good eats go to Java Promo, one block away and across from the government buildings. Or go to Super Bar Maquis for a great igname pilee ( pounded yam) lunch. The market is a great place to shop, but if you're into drums hire a zimi-jan (motor bike) and have the driver take you to the Adjarra market. It's about 10km out of town. Be sure to find out if the market is really going on, as it only gets going once every five days. Another good thing to do is to hire a priogue to take you to the Aguegue villages. They're stilt villages in the lagoon and less touristed than the more famous Ganvie villages.
Updated Feb 2, 2006
Address: Porto-Novo, Benin
The Songhai centre restaurant serves all the food that is produced and grown in the agricultural centre just yards away. After our tour we ate a delicious lunch here. I had salad with beetroot, fish tomatoes, lettuce and onions, followed by pigeon casserole with lots of lovely mixed vegetables and freshly squeezed fruit juice. My guide and driver had a local pork dish with cassava.
The restaurant is open on 2 sides so is nice and naturally cool and staff are friendly. Daily dishes are shown on the blackboard and there is plenty of choice – but only natural products grown here. You won’t get a coke!
You can’t get any more fresh or organic than this, and coming from a country where everything is chilled, transported and packaged, I could really taste the difference!
Written May 16, 2008