A nasty grey sky was the first thing I spotted when opening the curtains on my very first morning in Cotonou. Was it going to rain any minute? A quick check of the weather app said „low visibility due to dust“. Eventually it sank in, Harmattan season. This wind bis lowing from the Sahara across West Africa between December and March fills the air with thick dust. The horizon is greyish white, a photographer’s nightmare. A kind of blue skies would sometimes reappear late afternoon.
Gladly, I came for the culture and festivals and not for taking photos of scenic landscape. On the bright side, temperatures are perfect and no rain whatsoever disrupts travels, since often roads are not tarred and can be a mud bath and slippery.Generally, I would say adult Beninoises do not really like to have their photos taken by strangers, even in places regularly frequented by tourists, like Ganvie. Children like everybody are uninhibited.
Taking photos at the voodoo festival also turned out to be a rather difficult affair. The event where I saw the most beautiful masks was on the evening prior to the 10th of January, in a huge yard in the center of Ouidah. It was sheer luck I even found it. But it got really annoying, even without even lifting my camera , the performers would constantly ask for money. So if you are ready for that, bring lots of small bills. I found it too much and left. Since I saw nobody taking photos I refrained from doing so as well.
The festival starts late morning with a procession through central Ouidah, including the Sacred Forest. There you can take all the photos you want, but getting close to the sacrifices is almost impossible. These are usually performed in confined places, corners and naturally the priests and their “entourage” get to be the closest. Once the sacrifice of numerous chickens went on long after the VIPs and the procession had moved on and I managed to get a few close ups.
The main part of voodoo festival takes part on the beach, next to a Point of No Return. This starts in the early afternoon, the sun could not have been brighter, also not so grand for getting good shots. And yes, officially a pass is needed in order to take photos. I observed that tourists, who arrived with a group all had paid. The proof was a certain baseball cap they were wearing! This pass is sold in an office in the center of Ouidah, which I never found and so I clicked away without paying, only once or twice was I scolded, and only when taking photos of sacrifices. Around 5 o’clock, towards the end of the festival the light was finally perfect.
Without a local guide it is rather difficult to see through the organization of the voodoo festival: when what is happening and where. Most tourists arrive in a group with a guide, individual tourists can hire a local for € 20 for the day. I found this a bit much and declined. As always I was lucky and met an Italian lady who was travelling with her personal guide/friend, Godfried, a lovely man from Ghana. They took me under their wings, without them I would have never known about the procession in town, the mask dance and much more.
If you come to Benin for taking unique photos of festivals or ceremonies, especially close up, I would recommend visiting a small event in a village, without tourists, without the crowd. But this again requires local expertise. Not even the Austrian honorary consul in Cotonou could tell me when the Gani Festival in Nikki (northern Benin) was scheduled. My new friend from Ghana explained why. Often the decisions are based on oracles and thus on short notice, kind of difficult to plan a two week trip from Europe.