A city of spectacular voodoo temple and a magnificent mosque built in the fashion of a church
When you arrived too early in a city that habitually wakes up late, or you set off filled with effervescence only to find the city life easy and slow, you would naturally feel lost, like an unwanted stranger.
A neighbour who gave me direction a day earlier had told me: “If you find yourself in any difficulty, speak Yoruba. It is a common language.”
I did ask for direction. To my surprise, the dialect spoken by the people appeared to be a lost tongue of the Yoruba language that rendered my inflexion embarrassingly out of tune.
There were other instances of anachronism. Loudspeakers blared Apala tunes I last heard some 25 years ago. Everyone wore African print fabric, famously called Ankara in Nigeria. The streets crawled with Peugeot pickups that were the rave of the Nigerian roads 30 years ago. So wide and well-paved a street and all you’d see were Okada which they called keke zooming up and down the city. And a bevvy of moneychangers idly lined up the street, waiting for the naira-CFA customers. The flow of life, too leisurely. I felt disoriented, like a man in a time warp. Coming from the hurly-burly city like Lagos, Porto-Novo was way “too local” on my first visit.
In the coming months and years, as I became familiar with the city, I discovered its finer sides, and gradually fell into rhythm with its lethargic lifestyle.
Today, I adore the city so much so I have developed a habit of strolling through its innards of interlocking streets into the heart of the commercial district by Jardin Place Jean Bayol, a large plaza, with the towering statue of the first King of Porto-Novo. At the square, I mingle with the locals enjoying the cool of the evening.
Porto-Novo is not festooned with the glittering attraction you’d find in cities dotting the West Coast of Africa.
These is all it has: a crumbling cityscape, mouldy architecture and a lingering reek of slavery past––similar to Lagos’ Badagry. But there is beauty in its urbanity, in its mosaic culture and quaint architectural heritage that is a mélange of African and Portuguese influence.
The city, originally called Ajashe by the Yoruba and known to the Egun as Hogbonu, was renamed Porto Novo––“New Port”––by the Portuguese in the 16th century. By the turn of the twentieth century, Porto-Novo at its colonial height was the capital of French Dahomey.
Today, it’s lofty status is intact as the de jure capital of the Republic of Benin, but it is dwarfed in importance by Cotonou, the bubbly commercial capital, and the de facto seat of government.
If you arrived in the city under a blanket of darkness, in your first daylight view, Porto-Novo is reminiscent of a midsize town of southwest Nigeria. Porto-Novo has a predominantly Yoruba outlook with deeply ingrained Egun cultural motifs.
Lying within the sphere of Nigeria’s socio-economic influence, the city’s social reality is fermented by the smouldering popular culture of Nigeria. Consequently, Porto Novians tend to exhibit attitudes of dual-nationality. As you walk through a market or park, you get an earful of ‘Babelic concoction’ of Yoruba, Egun, English, pidgin and French.
They have a great liking for Yoruba home videos from Nigeria, just as the streets rock with popular naija songs by rave-of-the moment artistes, from Olamide to Davido to Wizkid to Pasuma.
But the Porto-Novo melting pot has a Latin alchemy. Afro-Brazilians who settled in the city after emancipation in Brazil brought with them Brazilian architecture, foods and habits which became important fixtures of the city’s cultural life.
Porto Novo’s attractions––though a handful––are real tourist stuff. The Museum of Ethnography is a reservoir of the city and the country’s past. Its humongous collections of artefacts such as masks, Shango axes, musical instruments and statuettes, are a delight for history buffs.
The Da Silva Museum chronicles the Afro-Brazilian art brought into the country in the 19th century by freed slaves, while the King Toffa’s Palace, known as the Musée Honmé and the Royal Palace showcase what life was like for African royalty. The palace and its surrounding district was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List on October 31, 1996.
For a more kinetic activity, try the markets. Ouando, a district 3 km north of the city centre, has a large market––and a pretty good nightlife. Adjarra Market, located 10 km northward, holding every fourth day, is a cornucopia of mainstream market items and the odds-and-ends wares including rare tie-and-dye fabric, astonishing pottery, peculiar musical instruments and varying voodoo ornaments. If you happen to be in the city in mid-January, you can join in the fete that is essentially a festival of food, music and dance in honour of the city’s Afro-Brazilian legacy.
The landscape is a contrasting perspective, a tapestry of contradictory architectural styles that seems to be in a constant shift “between the preservation of the past and the quest of modernism.” The jumbled mixture of old and new projects the idea of a city searching for a lost identity.
While Porto-Novo’s urban heritage has three faces––aboriginal, Afro-Brazilian and colonial French––the Latin métier is ubiquitously stamped on the city’s architecture. Former slaves and their offspring, who returned from Brazil in the mid-19th century, had successfully woven Brazilian strands into the local African styles to create architectural mutants that are novel, lively, colourful, and stunning even centuries later.
The Grand Mosque of Porto Novo is the best example of this visual treat. Built in the 1920s by the African-Brazilian community, it symbolized the high-quality craftsmanship of the time. The city’s oldest and the biggest mosque was once upon a time a Catholic church. Look long at it and you will see the “transposition of a large cross-shaped church in the surprising blends of Brazilian and African styles.” Its features of terracotta of warm hues of orange, yellow, and red, and plaster decorations are bewitching.
Its European-style façade is complemented with Indo-Portuguese carpentry work and woodwork masterfully carve. A mosque, though, there is little mark of Islamic design––no minarets, domes, arches and arabesque design. A pair of crescents with six-pointed stars is its best representation of an Islamic worship place.
Despite damage and deterioration, the grandeur and beauty of the structure remain enchanting. It stands majestically, an irresistible lure for tourists. A surreal backdrop that invites camera clicks for picture-perfect frames.
The inspiration for the magnificent decoration was derived from the Mosque of Lagos (built also by Afro-Brazilians, but unfortunately destroyed around 1980) and the baroque churches of Salvador, capital of Brazilian city of Bahia.
Spectacular mosques abound in the city, each with its own uniqueness. As you dig deeper into the sociology of Porto-Novo, you’d be amazed at the depth of the shared legacies between the city and the Brazilian Quarters of Lagos Island. Names of Portuguese or Luso-Brazilian origin resonate around the city; other imported Brazilian traditions, including cuisine, endured till today.
Stick around for days in Port-Novo and you are reminded that Benin is the actual birthplace of the voodoo culture that is now firmly entrenched in the Antilles, Cuba and Brazil. Slaves who crossed the Atlantic took with them their religious practice to the Caribbean. Porto-Novo, one of the last bastions of this black art, is the place to catch a glimpse of the practices. Once I had an eyeful when I stumbled upon a procession during one of my many strolls. The religious practice bequeaths to the city the tall conical ziggurats that are the Zangbeto temples, which are a riveting addition to the city’s eclectic architecture.
Benin, generally––and Porto-Novo in particular––is not a place to experience culinary orgasm. But I found some delight in Apon, a pap made of maize or guinea––rouge ou blanc, avec beaucoup de sucre, de lait et de glaçons––red or white, with plenty of sugar, milk and crushed ice cubes, that is how it is taken.
If you want a roaring good time, that is if you are adventurous, try Lome or Accra; if shopping in an African market is your thing, do Cotonou. But if you want a quiet time, in a city where time stands still, and day morphed imperceptibly into night, then hibernate in Porto-Novo.
Before you head there, practice how to live life easy and slow. It is a city whose motto should well be a maxim carried by some Nigerian vehicle: No hurry in life.