We are the happiest people on Earth! Remarks our guide. He is an enthusiastic middle aged man who is extremely proud of hailing from Ganvie – the town built on water, a few kilometers from Cotonou, on lake Nokoue, Benin. He says he would not exchange his dwelling with anywhere else. This is where I was born and I am proud of that.
He proudly and enthusiastically narrates the legendary story of the people of Ganvie. He says that his people fled from being captured as slaves by the King of Abomey in the 18th century. At the beginning, the pursuers followed up with them, and came with weapons, but their weapons would not reach the people of Ganvie, and a physical fight was impossible because of the water, so they left them alone. And since that time, they have lived in peace and security.
Looking at the happy faces of the people of Ganvie, I asked myself: What makes these people so happy? At the beginning I was looking at them with some pity – thinking – how can they live such a life? What happens to them when the water rises? These houses do not look very strong. How do they deal with mosquitoes? Why are the canoes leaking? Seeing as there is no electricity, how do they keep themselves cool in the heat that characterizes Ganvie? How do they preserve food? What about medicines? Do the children go to school? How do they get their wares?
The Guide answered my questions very patiently. He mentioned that the inhabitants of Ganvie love life. There is both a day and a night life. There is even a lover`s area, where people gather – in their canoes of course – to find life partners. If you already have a life partner, remarks the guide, do not go there. That is a sacred place where the Match Maker gathers people and wisely matches them. We have schools, dispensaries, maternity unit, and all the other services.
We do not need fridges – we do not eat frozen food. Frozen food is not healthy – in fact, it doesn’t taste as good as fresh food. Fish that is not sold out is distributed at a throw away price in the evening, so that we do not have leftovers. We are a healthy people.
Our houses last between 15 to 30 years. When we see them start shaking, we tweak them. We cannot afford to build stronger ones, but these are sufficient for us. In one`s lifetime, you can rebuild your house three to five times. That`s the fun of having temporary homes, every generation lives in a new house.
We use lanterns and solar to light up our houses. We love it that way. For fuel, we use firewood. Asked whether there is no risk of the house catching fire, he says that they have specially made clay cookers that prevent that from happening. No house has ever burned down due to the use of firewood!
We have sunk boreholes in the water and so we have a clean supply of water for everyone.
Everyone here knows how to swim – and to paddle a canoe. Children from the age two, learn to paddle. In each household, there is a canoe for the head of the house (father), one for the mother, one for girls, and another for boys. These are clearly designated, and no one will use the other`s.
There is booming business in Ganvie. Men go fishing, then sell that fish to women, who trade it. Men cannot sell fish, neither can women go fishing.
We have the floating market everyday – and there is a beehive of activities happening in there. Each person shouts out what they are selling, and if you are interested in purchasing their wares, you either beckon them, or paddle your way to their canoe and make your purchase. Life is good in Ganvie!
This experience was very powerful for me. Living in the West, I obviously had a lot of questions on how people can survive in some situations. However, these people have taught me, for the umpteenth time, that it is not having that makes one happy, but being!
I had the impression that these people pity those who come from the West, they think we are very unhappy, and need help. They wonder why we marvel at their fullness of life, why we have so many illnesses, why we complicate life so much. They invite us to be like them, be in touch with nature, communicate with it, be in touch with others, live one day at a time, and celebrate life in all its faces!