Time out in Grand Popo

I have been too busy for some time to post anything to the blog, but having planned to draft something on last week's trip to the UK I found the following, drafted last December but for some reason never posted (with apologies if a photo is inserted in a random place - blogger tells me I've added it but it doesn't show up in the draft):

After a period of pretty hard work I took a long weekend to rest at the village of Grand Popo in Benin. Formerly a grand colonial town, apparently, the majority of the ‘grand’ stuff has long since been swallowed up by the sea, with not even the spire of the old church now visible above the crashing waves. What is left now is a typical African fishing village squashed between the sea and a web of mangrove creeks, but leading to it a 4km-long road lined with little guest-houses, bars, art galleries and the like.

I followed a recommendation to stay at the grandest of the guest houses, in some restored old buildings next to the sea, although by the final day I was taking my meals in the cheaper places down the road. I slept a lot, walked a bit, took a drumming lesson, and also a couple of excursions around the locality (a pirogue trip among the mangroves and a walk around a village full of voodoo fetishes).

On the latter I was taken into a house to be shown two turtles in a sadly small tank, but also two old rice sacks now full of sand and, apparently, turtle eggs which had been rescued before poachers could steal them to eat. However when I took a closer look at the sand, I saw that there was a baby turtle on top and several parts of other baby turtles emerging from the sand! The guide asked if I minded helping, and basically set me to work digging out all the turtles while he went off to fill some big basins with sea water. It took a long time but by the end we had several basins containing some 120-odd baby turtles swimming about in the water (besides ten or so that had not survived.

Apparently they would be released into the sea that evening. I’m not sure if this is the best way to conserve turtles (isn’t the process of digging their way out of the sand an important part of their development? & a way of their ‘learning’ where they come from so that the females will know where to come back when they need to lay eggs of their own?) but at least the will is there.

I also ended up in a fascinating conversation with one of the hotel waiters. He was a part-time musician (I had already bought a CD of his!) and very knowledgeable on the history of African rhythms.

I learnt that (according to him at least) salsa originates from Benin – from the slaves of the Beninois Agossa family taken to Cuba. There the women beat out the rhythm on metal gongs to help their men to get through the work in the sugar plantations. The word salsa is apparently a corruption of Agossa.

The metal gong in the story is a commonly used instrument in West African traditional ceremonies, although only in Benin is it a part of regular music. He told me it originated in Benin a long time ago, when a group of women needed a way to stop their king from carrying out a public execution. They commissioned a blacksmith to make a metal gong in shape of a breast, so that they could present it to the king as a symbol of the strength of their feelings against the execution. How could he who was suckled at his mother’s breast, put to death another man, also suckled at his mother’s breast? So they each had a gong made in the shape of one of their breasts, beat the gongs loudly to get the attention of the king and presented them to him with their pleas. The man was saved and the gong became a regular part of ceremonial life.

Unfortunately, with the tendency to go bra-less and have lots of children, I can confirm that many African women do indeed have breasts the shape of the gong.

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