Visit to Abomey and a Spoonful of History

Royal Palace of Abomey

Scholarship holders Marjo, Rea-Liina, musician Susanna Hietala and I visited the royal palaces of Abomey. This place is of great historical importance, since it was once the capital of the great Dahomey kingdom famous for its wealth and army of Amazons, but also for slavery. Today it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.

The palace carries a sombre history. Some of the Abomey kings were effective slave traders, who, after a long period of internal slave trade, found new customers among the colonisers of the New Continent. Along with their white faces and guns, the Europeans had brought their diseases to the Americas and so indirectly killed the local exploitable workforce. The natives (Colon so misleadingly had named Indians) were reduced significantly and the Europeans had to bring in Africans to replace them. So, basically this is what led to a shift in focus from internal towards foreign slave exchange among the Dahomey kings and as a consequence sowed the seeds of the whole African diaspora.

Even if the kings did do business with the Europeans, they were unwilling to be colonized by them. And Abomey was the last bastion of resistance in the region against the colonial hegemony until the end of the 19th century. Abomey kings fought the foreign intruders whereas the kings of Porto Novo collaborated with the new patrons who eventually in addition to Dahomey conquered the northern kingdoms of Nikki , Djougou and Parakou . In 1894, the French colony of Dahomey was established between the German and English colonies. The borders of what currently makes up the republic of Benin were found by this high-handed decision. The French colony of Dahomey got independent in 1960.

Royal Palace Floor Plan

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This is Grand-Popo – and some history

Map of Grand-Popo

Click on the map above and you’ll see the village of Grand-Popo!

This map was drawn some years ago by Finnish artist Tini Sauvo, and as she writes, it is an outline ment to give the idea of the village: and to encourage to discover and find new paths.

Life in Grand-Popo is lively and new establishments are always appearing on the places of old ones. In this map you can’t for example yet see the Lion Bar – very popular reggae bar and hostel on the beach, just below Église de Pentecôte. Restaurant Ibis Bel in the Carrefour of Grand-Popo is also missing, and some new hotels. And hotel-restaurant Saveurs d’Afrique is nowadays somewhat bigger. But the churches and cemeteries and schools are still in their old places. And of course Villa Karo.

On the right side of the map, in east, is the old town of Grand-Popo: Gbecon. It used to be the historical center of Grand-Popo and a lively commercial town with a cathedral, post office and several majestic stone buildings. In 1930 the sea started to rise and caused a coastal erosion that slowly wiped away three-fourths of the town. Today Gbecon is a magnificent “ghost town” with its abandoned colonial buildings – but some are also repaired, like Maison de Svanhild. The festivities of Vodun are also held in Gbecon every year on January 10th, and the Stadium of Vodun is situated on the beach, between the sea and the Mono river.

The former administrative center of Grand-Popo used to spread between the building of Villa Karo and Gbecon – in the area which is nowadays almost “outside” of the village (the road pavement ends at Villa Karo). The house of Montgeron used to be the mayor’s working place, and also a building for colonial administration. The building of l’Auberge, which looks very much like Villa Karo, was built in 1917 and it served as the préfecture of Grand-Popo, and after 1936, as a girls’ school.

The building of Villa Karo was built around 1900 and it used to serve as a colonial hospital: the operating room was in the first floor and patiens stayed in the second floor. The Museum building used to be a wing for contagious patients, Lissa Gbassa the maternity ward and the building of Farafina (in the neighbour of Villa Karo) the house for midwives. In 1939 the second floor of Villa Karo was destroyed and the hospital was moved across the road. And after second World War, Porto-Novo became the capital of Dahomey and the hospital was moved there. The hospital of Villa Karo slowly reduced its operations, until the building was completely abandoned in 1990.

From Villa Karo to west is the “new” centre of Grand-Popo: restaurant-hotel Saveurs d’Afrique and the small shops (alimentation générales) at Leonie and Beaux-Arts. There is also a new beach restaurant and hotel, Maison Blanche, the Art Gallery of Victor Amoussou and a good place to (quite) quickly eat an omelette or a spaghetti “avec sauce tomate“: Bonne fourchette.

La Mairie, the City Hall, is nowadays situated close to Place de Nonvitcha, where the annual celebrations for the home district association Nonvitcha are held every June (the party is huge, like Vappu and Juhannus in Finland combined together – and no wonder, Nonvitcha is the oldest organisation of West Africa, founded 91 years ago this year). And from Place de Nonvitcha to west there is already the main road of Lomé-Cotonou.  The Bush-taxis stop in the Carrefour, but also on the main road close to the water tower and at the market place.

So when you come to Grand-Popo, hop off at the Carrefour and take a zemidjan to Villa Karo, you’ll be there in a few minutes by moped, or in 20-30 minutes on foot!

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The historical information about Grand-Popo has been collected in 2010 by Essi Jäppinen during her stay in Villa Karo.

Visit at the Museum: “Le petit musée de la Villa Karo”

As some people already know, Villa Karo has a small museum collection, created by Juha Vakkuri and Matti-Juhani Karila and first opened to public in 2001.

The objects in the collection bring together, in many different ways, West African and European or Finnish traditions and histories. The collection illustrates traditional African beliefs, especially vodun, but also the ways how Christianity and colonialism have influenced West African countries and people – and the ways how for example Finnish nature-based religions bear likeness to African ones.

In the museum, one can for example find a priest of Heviosso, the God of Thunder (like Thor in the North or Ukko in Finland) who brings justice to the world in Fon, Ewe and Yoruba -tribes’ beliefs, wearing a European bowler hat. Or a hay mask from Tikar-tribe with eyes made of Benetton-buttons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Very interesting part of the museum is the collection of “colons” – wooden, painted dolls that depict the times of colonization in Africa. French colonial administration hired locals to work in the government, and “colons” represent the local people dressed in European uniforms and clothes. The colonization of Benin (former Dahomey) began in 1892 and the country gained independence from France finally in 1958.

Today the colon-tradition has become a part of souvenir business, and in the same way as one can find Barbie-dolls dressed as stewards, doctors or movie stars, one can find colon-dolls representing different kinds of professions, from photographers to football players and horse racers.

The collection of Villa Karo is expanding little by little, and in charge of the museum in Grand-Popo is Georgette Singbe, who gives tours of the museum for school groups, tourists and anyone interested.

The museum is open from Monday to Friday between 8.00 and 12.00 and 16.00 and 18.00, and on Saturdays from 9.00 to noon. The admission is free, like all activities in Villa Karo, so if you happen to be in Grand-Popo, Benin, be sure to pay the museum a visit!