Last updated: 24 may, 2010 - 13:37 GMT

Africa Kicks: Benin

Day 1

Watch a voodoo ceremony in Ouidah, Benin.

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When you travel from from Togo to Benin it is hard not to notice a startling difference in the mood of people.

Perhaps due to its long history of military involvement in politics, Togo appeared joyless, the atmosphere tight with aggression.

Hospitality was not high on people's agenda, the hotel's pale walls lacked pictures and long unadorned hallways were illuminated by the harsh white light of long fluorescent tubes.

Stories gathered and images shot, we were quick to jump back on to the BBC Africa Kicks bus to begin the short journey to Benin.

The road to Benin takes us past Lomé's sprawling container port and the trans-Sahara road construction project.

Beyond the grey of industry the promise of the Atlantic ocean trims the country's southern edge.

The area around the border crossing was crackling with tension. Uniformed border officials barked orders at civilians, while people remained muted.

When we emerged on the Benin side of the crossing it was like walking from a monochrome frame into a full technicolour extravaganza.

The fruit on sale at the side of the road was plumper and riper, the women, round and welcoming like their merchandise.

BBC Africa Kicks bus gets a police escort in Benin

To ease our journey through the traffic, the minister of the interior had provided us with an outrider escort. Our bus pulled away following a huge BMW police motorcycle, blue lights flashing.

The cop's extravagant riding drew gasps and laughter.

The relief of leaving the downtrodden Togo and finding ourselves in this explosion of colour having lessons from the Beninois on how to enjoy life had us giddy with the thrill of it.

The policeman's bike rode a wiggling line down the centre of the single carriageway, signalling traffic coming in both directions to move to the side of the road.

His huge bike would tilt low to the left as he stretched himself out, low across the road, arm outstretched and signalling elaborately that on-coming traffic should get out of the way.

Our short convoy made fast progress from the border along roads lined with tall thick-bladed grasses and coconut palms.

Motorcyclists yielded either side of us, dressed in the colourful Beninois two-piece suits known as Bomba in Fon, the local language.

Our first stop was Ouidah, a town with links back to the slave trade where voodoo is widely practised.

We were invited to attend a voodoo ceremony with the high priest Dagbou Hounon.

Despite the fact that voodoo is the most widely practised religion here, we still passed a mosque and a church on the way to the ceremony.

Under the gaze of Dagbou Hounon, six dancers performed to the raucous beat of a six-piece drumming outfit.

The beats were vigorous and relentless, the six dancers pumping their bodies energetically with jerky steps, jumps and thrusts of the chest and arms.

Speaking to Dagbou Hounon later, we learned that this dance is just one part of a number of elaborate rituals that anyone consulting a voodoo priest might be asked to commission in order to get things to go the way that they want.

All I wanted was my bed. I hoped this one consultation would be sufficient.

Day 2

The lake village of Ganvié, known as the Venice of West Africa, is home to a population of fishermen.

One of Ganvié's two football teams is also in the top four of Benin's national football league.

It seems the beautiful game can walk on water.

Here we learnt about a new fishing technique - the most popular method of getting fish out of the brackish waters of Lake Nokoué.

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Lake Nokoué is a shallow stretch of water on the outskirts of the Beninois capital, Cotonou. At low tide, the water is just a metre or so deep, rising to three or four when the tide is in and the rains come.

80,000 people live on the lake, with the population distributed between 42 small stilted villages. The largest of these is Ganvié.

The village itself is surprisingly self-contained. There is a floating maket which congregates every other day, there is a hotel, a bar and, astonishingly, a full size football pitch, home to their homegrown soccer stars.

But it is fishing that sustains people here.

Most types of fishing are practised here - nets, lines, baskets - but the prevalent method locally is known as Akaja.

It is a long term programme.

A family will purchase or gather tree branches and palm fronds.

These are then sunk vertically into the lake's bed to fence off an area of water. It remains so for two years.

After that time, a weighted net is draped around the uprights.

Ganvié's children spend most of their time on the water

These are then removed to the outside of the net and the fishermen will get into the water and walk the nets towards the centre, gradually reducing the capacity of containment.

Over a couple of weeks the fish are harvested. Reeds and detritus that have been captured along with the fish are slung out of the fishy compound and the guys can then pretty much grab the fish by hand.

The women take the fish to market.

The Mayor ordered the relocation of the main fish market recently. In his effort to boost the number of foreign visitors he wanted to keep the powerful smell of fish off the tourist trail.

Our bus made the journey to the shore of the lake from where we were transferred into two long covered wooden boats, each taking about eight.

The engine throbbed gently as the captain's rudder steered a ginger path through the still, grass-congested lake.

He occasionally had to pull up the engine and remove grass from the propeller so as not to over-stress it.

All around us wooden dugout canoes negotiate the gleaming water; children fishing, old women heading to market and men checking their Akajas.

Ganvié is known as the Venice of West Africa

For the children of the village, the water is their playground. Before taking on an economic role in the family, the youngest of them spend their days splashing playfully on and off canoes.

We chugged gently around the village before our own bus journey had to be resumed.

Bidding farewell to the colourful voodoo charm of Benin, the BBC Africa Kicks bus rumbled towards our final frontier, Nigeria.

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