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In Benin, a colossal heritage and memorial site – Jeune Afrique

It is on the laterite of Ouidah, trodden by more than a million black slaves between the end of the 15th and 19th centuries, and more precisely in the enclosure of the Portuguese fort where they were detained before their exile across the Atlantic, that the International Museum of Memory and Slavery (Mime) is erected.

Still under construction, the building, which should open its doors by the end of 2022, is only one of the bricks of a colossal heritage and tourist site. Composed of twelve projects, it notably provides for three other museums, in Abomey, Porto-Novo and Cotonou.

Devoid of minerals and hydrocarbons, Benin has an immense heritage that the Minister of Culture, Jean-Michel Abimbola, likes to present as “a cultural exception” on which Cotonou has decided to bet. This strategy is in line with Patrice Talon’s program, “Revealing Benin”, which should make the country “one of the leading destinations in West Africa, even internationally”.

To orchestrate this ambitious project, the National Agency for the Promotion of Heritage and Tourism Development (ANPT) was specially created in 2016. Its portfolio of 650 billion CFA francs (990.9 million euros), or 6% of national GDP in 2020, is 55% covered by private funds.

Memorial tourism in Ouidah

Thus, since 2020, the coastal city of Ouidah has been under construction. This historic city, whose homes with African-Brazilian architecture are steeped in a painful past, is in the process of being rebuilt thanks to the financial support of the World Bank (to the tune of 30 billion CFA francs) and funds public (43 billion CFA francs). Behind the walls of the Portuguese fort – the last colonial bastion in Benin, which lasted until 1961 – will rise the Mime.

A space of 662 m², still under construction, will host a permanent exhibition, part of which will be devoted to Africa and Europe before the transatlantic slave trade; a second to “the slave trade” and a third to the fights for freedom.

According to Alain Godonou, director of the museums program at the ANPT, who oversaw the teams of Beninese scientists and historians and the French museographers and scenographers from the Decalog and Les Crayons agencies, it was essential to “think about the route from the African” and to “get out of the quantitative prism to propose personified trajectories”.

For lack of a large enough collection – around sixty pieces only – the museum team relied on “interpretation” with period rooms, replicas of objects and many audiovisual supports.

Thus, it will be possible to follow the exodus of Cujo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the slave trade, captured at the age of 19 by the Amazons of the kingdom of Dahomey then conveyed from Abomey to Ouidah. He was confined there in a cabin (“barracoon”) for long weeks before being shipped to Alabama (where he will live in a house reconstructed for the occasion) aboard the last slave ship, the Clotilda. It was 1860, fifty-two years after the banning of the trade in human beings in the United States.

The future International Museum of Memory and Slavery (Mime) will be erected in Ouidah. © Agency Les Crayons

The heritage circuit extends outside the museum where the Governor’s House, freshly renovated, will temporarily house the 26 works returned by France once their exhibition at the Palais de la marina in Cotonou is over.

A few meters further, the barracks, the menagerie and the captivity will be rebuilt as in the 18th century. Along the 4 km slave route that connects the fort to the coast, other sites are being rehabilitated, such as ChaCha Square, now called Auction Square, where slaves were bartered for a pipe or tobacco , or the Zoungbodji memorial and the tree of return.

The government’s ambitions do not stop there. On the beach lined with coconut trees located a few kilometers from the famous door of no return, a tourist complex of 130 rooms, financed by the Bank of China to the tune of 109 billion CFA francs, should see the light of day. In Avlékété, the neighboring lagoon village, a Club Med will be built this year.

Resuscitate the Kingdom of Abomey

The Meard will revive the mighty kingdom of Danhomè (Dahomey).  © Agency Les Crayons

The Meard will revive the mighty kingdom of Danhomè (Dahomey). © Agency Les Crayons

Two hours north of Porto-Novo, the government agency has promised to “revive” another major part of the country’s history, that of the tercentenary and powerful kingdom of Dahomey, disappeared with part of its vestiges. after a struggle against the French colonizers in 1894.

It is in the heart of the palatial site of Abomey, a UNESCO heritage site since 1985, that the long-awaited Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and the Kingdom of Danhomè (Meard) will be located. It is part of a larger project, partly financed by the French Development Agency (AFD) for 23 billion CFA francs and Cotonou (15 billion), including in particular the renovation of three royal palaces, the installation of a village to welcome the families of craftsmen as at the time of the court and the opening of shops and restaurants.

For architect Françoise N’Thépé, the challenge is daunting: “I wanted the museum to have its own identity, without mimetically reproducing royal architecture. » In order to integrate despite everything in the history of the place, the building was designed on one level with a low structure « so as not to dominate the existing palaces ». These new sections of compressed brick facades will echo the old ones. High reliefs should be carved there by the Beninese artist Euloge Glèlè, a descendant of the tenth king of Abomey, whose name it bears.

The Franco-Cameroonian also called on local know-how and a specialized environmental study firm “to find sustainable, natural and local materials rather than relying solely on mechanical ventilation” in order to protect the collection from the strong humidity. The museum will house a permanent collection of around 500 works, including the 26 returned royal treasures which will return to their land of origin after one hundred and thirty years of exile.

Architect's view of the future Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and the Kingdom of Danhomè (Meard).  © Agency Les Crayons

Architect’s view of the future Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and the Kingdom of Danhomè (Meard). © Agency Les Crayons

To define the programming, Alain Godonou relied on a Beninese scientific committee, the Decalog agency and writers, such as Noureini Tidjani-Serpos, who drew on the abundant archives available. “Dahomey is the African kingdom that has produced the most writings in the West, surpassing the Mandinka Empire and the Bantu kingdoms,” he says. Before adding: “IFAN [Institut français d’Afrique noire], who settled in Abomey in 1943, was also a major production center for African researchers who transcribed oral sources. »

The scenography, designed by the Les Crayons agency, will echo this oral tradition. The factual and chronological account of the history of this city-state which founded its prosperity on the slave trade and then on palm oil will be superimposed on the legendary dimension of the Dahomean saga, with theatrical and immersive stagings.

Twelve royal alcoves will illustrate the reign of the eleven kings and of Queen Hangbé, recently reinstated in the dynasty. The last space will be devoted to the Amazons, between real reading and cultural appropriation. Nicolas Béquart, the co-founder of the agency, does not hide his enthusiasm: “It’s the jewel of all the projects! He opted for a “hybrid” graphic staging by combining local know-how – basketry, applied canvas, carved wood – with a more “contemporary” style.

If the project is advanced, no brick has yet been laid. The building must however open its doors by the end of 2024. Discussions were in progress until last week with Unesco concerning the volumetry of the museum. The new version has been validated, but building craftsmen still need to be trained in the rehabilitation of the old palaces.

It is also planned to excavate the soil at the level of the museum right-of-way before its construction. Indeed, a huge part of the royal site, 47 hectares, has never been explored. “Surveys have already been carried out by a Beninese-Danish team and they should continue,” says Alain Godonou. Eventually, it is also planned that the archaeological research team will have a base in the palace of Béhanzin. »

Voodoo in the heart of Porto-Novo

Finally, it is difficult to approach the cultural heritage of the country without mentioning voodoo, of which Benin is the cradle. An International Vodun Museum (MIV) will be set up in the heart of Porto-Novo, a few meters from Place Tofa. The building with carved wooden walls, designed by the Ivorian firm Koffi & Diabaté, is fully financed by the government to the tune of 18 billion CFA francs.

The objective is to “deconstruct stereotypes and give the world the intellectual and visual means for a better understanding of voodoo”, insists Alain Godonou. The scientific committee that works on the program is notably composed of Gabin Djimassè, historian, researcher and specialist in voodoo art. The collections that should appear there are still being identified.

View of the future International Museum of Voodoo, in Porto Novo.

View of the future International Museum of Voodoo, in Porto Novo.

Beyond the walls of the museum, the ANPT intends to promote the practice of this religion, in particular by rehabilitating the road from the convents of Adjarra to Grand-Popo and by structuring the January 10 celebration to make it an international festival in Ouidah. Hoping to attract tourists and tens of millions of foreign practitioners – including Afro-descendants from the Caribbean and Brazil. The most recent project, directed by the Beninese National Gallery, consists in the creation of a Museum of contemporary art which would find its place in the artisanal village of Cotonou.

Excessive ambition?

After the museums, the agency’s list is still (very) long: renovation of the lakeside city of Ganvié (84 billion CFA francs), development of luxury ecotourism and hunting for a “privileged” public in the Pendjari natural park (11.5 billion), construction of the new Imperial Royal Palace of Baru Tem in Nikki and an arena for the Gaani festival (5 billion), development of the Toussaint-Louverture square in Allada ( 1.7 billion)…

If these beautiful promises bring hope, such ambition in such a short timeframe brings back the fear that they are only “white elephants”.

Will the museums be built in time? Will they really see the light of day? Are the projects not too oriented towards a foreign and wealthy public? What about “very French” expertise? Will the inhabitants concerned really benefit from the jobs thus created and the economic spinoffs, if any?

If the risks and financial commitments are real, Wenceslas Adjognon, director of tourism development and marketing at the ANPT, wants to be reassuring: “The delays have already been taken into consideration in the schedule and the required adjustments have been made. Museums, like everywhere in the world, are not designed for direct profitability. They are levers for creating and accelerating derived economies. It is difficult to accurately predict the full extent of these economic benefits, but we are well supported by all the necessary expertise,” he says.

Very confident, he aims “3 million tourists by 2028 [contre 350 000 en 2019] », and counts in particular on neighboring Nigeria and its 220 million – potential – visitors.

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