By Hermann Boko, US Africa News. Updated 2016-07-22

Celebrating Vodu




For Benin, getting UNESCO World Heritage Site classification for the former slave port of Ouidah, located 40 kilometers west of Cotonou, is a critical strategy. The site, which saw the departure for the Americas of more than a million slaves over three centuries, is now one of the country's assets for its tourism development, including the “memorial tourism” booming within the African-American community in search of its roots. But now, the dossier requesting the classification has disappeared. Benin would have done better to have kept orderly records from the start – the process necessitates ten years of work. Our obstinate investigation has found no trace of it on the shelves of the country's administration.


The Tree of Forgetfulness


The Ouidah site has been on UNESCO’s tentative list since 1996, not only the city, but also the four kilometer road that leads to beach. A little historical and geographical background is needed on the stages of slave trade of black Africans through Ouidah, considered today one of the most serious crimes against humanity. Slaves were first led to the Place Chacha and offered at auction to white slavers. The Portuguese the French, the British and the Danes, all had forts at Ouidah. Chained slaves were then "invited" to go around the Tree of Forgetfulness--nine times for men, seven times for women--to forget their country and their culture. For weeks or months, the slaves awaited departure in the Zomai hut [meaning “There, where the light is not allowed.”], consisting of several cells. Often they died there. A final ritual to ensure that the souls of slaves could return to their homeland took place at the back of the tree, always visible.


Finally, the Door of No Return, on the beach, symbolizes the most desperate stage for slaves. Many of them, convinced that they would be devoured by whites, swallowed sand or even their own tongues to choke, if they did not throw themselves into the sea to drown or be devoured by sharks. In 1995, at UNESCO's initiative, a memorial was erected at the place where the boats were leaving for the New World.


Mapping work


With this heritage, Ouidah is a much more important site than Gorée Island, Sénégal, whose role in the slave trade was only marginal. Yet Gorée Island has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, and even US President Barack Obama visited there in 2009. Meanwhile Ouidah has been languishing, at a distance from tourist influxes, with its sand-covered roads and crumbling houses. Applications for UNESCO classification are very complex to develop and often represent years of work. The candidate must demonstrate that everything is in place for preservation and conservation, with an operational management plan for accommodating the public. In Benin, since registering on the intended list in 1996, nothing has happened...


"Attempts to finalize the project have failed despite UNESCO grants. Ouidah World Heritage registration has never been a priority for the Ministry of Culture," complains Didier Houénoudé, 40, a history professor at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin. He himself joined the Ministry of Culture in April 2013 as a technical advisor, and will now be returning to the drawing board. Houénoudé and staff from the Ministries of Culture and Tourism will then work on finalizing the dossier entitled "Landmark Study of the Slave Route." In January 2015, it was almost completed with about thirty pages plus several attached documents. "All that was missing was mapping, said Houénoudé, who had returned to the university at the end of 2014. “Since then, I haven’t had any more news of it. The resources of the state did not follow. We had even managed to get a budget of €5,000 from the association France UNESCO, for publishing and printing issues. Funding that was never used. What a pity! "


Calixte Biah, a former director of Cultural Heritage, currently curator of the Ouidah Museum, housed in the former Portuguese fort, also worked on the dossier. "Until January 2015," he says, also very bitter. And after? "I cannot tell you what became of that file,” says the curator. “At the time, we sent the first draft to the Ministry. It’s not the intellectual and technical skills that are lacking, but material and financial resources. "


Return to the source


Professor Houénoudé’s dossier is all the more valuable as it had a broader ambition than the draft found in the Ministry of Culture in 2011, which concerned only the city of Ouidah and the four kilometers of road to the beach. "We had incorporated several cities having a direct historical relationship to slavery, such Savé, or Abomey Dassa," he explains.


This makes sense: in Benin, it was the local kings (the kingdom of Xwéda in the seventeenth century and that of Dahomey in the eighteenth century) who organized the lucrative business of slave trafficking to establish a monopoly for themselves. Supply chains went well beyond the coastal cities. Moreover, in Abomey, the former capital, 47 hectares around the royal palaces have already been classified by UNESCO since 1985. These monuments are still in poor condition and their inclusion in a new classification would not hurt.


But where is this dossier? A bundle of about thirty pages with a lot of appendices-- "that makes it a bit thick," according to the last people who saw it. Knocking on the door of the Ministry of Culture, which shares the same building as that of Trade, is useless. "Go see to the director of Cultural Heritage", orders an official. This approach requires additional paperwork, such as writing a handwritten letter. A few days later, the appointment is fixed with Jules Agani, who was very timely appointed director of cultural heritage, in January 2015, in other words, when Houénoudé and his colleagues provided their copy.


We are on time, Thursday, June 27 at four o’clock, for this awaited rendezvous. Jules Agani, however, escapes quickly. "I'm really sorry, but I won’t be able to talk with you. I am trying to get a documentary done. Brazilian journalists have come to Cotonou and want to do a film on the Afro-Brazilian heritage of the city of Ouidah. I have to prioritize.


“What, precisely, do you know concerning the dossier for the World Heritage Registration for Ouidah, a UNESCO World Heritage?” we ask, hopeful.


“Never heard of it. No idea on this matter,” says the manager, inviting us to leave his office. Despite our insistence, Jules Agani did not call back after the interview with our Brazilian colleagues.


Tourist destination


Once again, no one is aware of Ouidah folder. "I have never been informed of such a case," answers an annoyed Marcel N'dah, secretary general of the CNBU (National Commission of Benin for UNESCO). How could this be? Marcel N'dah dismisses us--"Benin's National Commission for UNESCO is under the Ministry of Maternal and Primary Education. We also manage projects related to sustainable development. Some cultural projects are managed by the Ministry of Culture. Go see Richard Sogan. "


Richard Sogan is the former director of Cultural Heritage, currently Secretary General of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. But it was not possible to reach him. In 2014, during an interview with Africa24 channel, he acknowledged that the dossier was indeed written by Beninese staff and it only remained to do the famous “mapping of selected sites.”


Ouidah, which is the hometown of the current president, Patrice Talon, who is visiting Paris and meeting François Hollande on Tuesday, July 12, is already a tourist destination. In 2014, more than half of the approximately 200,000 tourists who visited Benin went there. The city includes the Museum of the Zinsou Foundation, dedicated to contemporary African art. A designation by UNESCO would be a formidable accelerator. The World Bank, understanding this, has granted Benin a loan of 50 million dollars (45 million euros) to develop a memorial tourism around the city of Ouidah.


This credit was just refused by the government, which wants a sum four times greater, and which created for this purpose a promotional agency for heritage and tourism development. The role will be to boost this sector which currently contributes only 2% of the gross domestic product. Will this agency have any more luck than us in getting their hands on the Ouidah file? "There is a strong political will that will help complete this dossier that is absolutely essential for Benin tourism," concludes Didier Houénoudé.


This article is also published in the Journal “le Monde Afrique”