OUIDAH | The small coastal town of Ouidah is under construction: while across the world, statues of former slavers are being debunked, Benin has decided to restore its monuments to tell its painful story from the slave trade to colonization.
In the great Portuguese Fort which sits in the middle of this historic city were gathered more than a million men, women and children (Yale University figures) between the 17th and 19th centuries, before being embarked through The Atlantic Ocean.
The building usually houses the city’s History Museum, but today it is hidden behind blue tin screens. Inside, dozens of workers are working hard from morning until nightfall before its inauguration scheduled for the end of the year.
“Pending the end of the work, part of the museum’s collection has been relocated to the Maison du Brésil to be showcased there through a temporary exhibition” And if Ouidah was told to me “, explains to AFP, Jean Michel Abimbola, Minister of Tourism of Benin.
The exhibition, which opened on August 3, attracts many historians, residents of Benin and natives of Ouidah, meanwhile, everyone here hopes, that the country finds its tourists after the coronavirus crisis.
Under glass protections arranged in the great hall are enthroned maps and atlases of Portuguese navigators, drafting rifles used by the royal army.
Visitors can also contemplate the portable altars used for the ceremonies of the kings of ancient Dahomey, or a bell brought by European Catholic missionaries, but also the shackles and chains used to tie slaves.
“When I see these chains which were used to hinder our ancestors, it hurts”, told AFP Benoît Daoundo, a United Nations official stationed in Cameroon, on vacation in his country of origin. “But that’s our story. We must accept it and tell it to future generations ”.
“Our children don’t know any of this. Slavery must be taught in schools and more than a few lessons, ”he pleads, with emotion.
Ulrich Lantonkpodé, lawyer in Cotonou and originally from Ouidah, also came to see this exhibition after hearing about it on social networks. He “lacked elements and information on the culture and history of (his) family,” he told AFP.
“I appreciate this exhibition as much as the idea of rebuilding the Portuguese Fort to allow this history to be preserved”, rejoices the lawyer, at the end of the visit.
With its Afro-Brazilian architecture and its beaches lined with coconut palms as far as the eye can see, the city of Ouidah was a major trading post in the transatlantic slave trade and it is today at the heart of the Benin tourism development project initiated in 2016. by President Patrice Talon.
Benin is working “for an increase in the development of tourism of the Beninese cultural exception”, explains the Minister of Tourism, who underlines that the budget allocated to it amounts to 1 billion euros of investment in National level.
The country has rehabilitated the Pendjari National Park in the north to attract safari enthusiasts, and is currently building various voodoo museums or the former kingdom of Dahomey, for which it has also asked France for the restitution of ‘objects looted during the colonial wars.
But the expansion of jihadism in the region has put a brake on the development of European tourism in West Africa in recent years, a situation further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing Benin to now play the card of regional tourism.
“In Ouidah, it is the Nigerian market that we are targeting as a priority,” told AFP an official of the National Agency for the Promotion of Heritage and Tourism (ANPT).
Indeed, Lagos the economic capital of Nigeria, giant neighbor of 200 million inhabitants, is only a hundred kilometers from Ouidah and the two countries share a common history from slavery to colonization.
In addition to the seaside offer, the Ministry of Tourism and the ANPT have decided to focus on issues of memory by rehabilitating the Portuguese Fort, but also by enhancing the slave route, which leads to the Porte du Non-Return, where the vessels ready to cross the Atlantic were moored.
The small town should also host the International Museum of Memory and Slavery (MIME) which is currently under construction, as well as a large tourist complex of 130 rooms oriented towards the same theme, with “gardens of remembrance”, a zone of meditation, and “the historical reconstruction of a slave ship” off the ocean.
“We need strong action, beyond the movements to claim black causes”, defends Eric Accrombessi, tourist guide and native of Ouidah. “The renovation of these places will better illustrate the fabric of history to pass it on to future generations.”