He clapped his hands – repeatedly – and in response, over a thousand bats, previously unnoticeable, flew off the branches of the aged tree.
They flapped their wings un-menacingly and danced around the sky-line in random motion.
And we all gazed – locked, hooked and sold by yet another mysterious sight in The Sacred Forest of the King, a historical and mythical site in Cotonou, Benin Republic.
The lot of us – curious wordsmiths and social media influencers – had been carefully selected by Google Nigeria to have a feel of, and utilise its travel-companion mobile applications.
And there we were; in the Sacred Forest – home to the 3-headed voodoo god, several deities and the unmissable Papa Legba, the god of virility.
But this is not the beginning of the tale of that trip – the journey into the past and an adventure of a lifetime.
I begin from Nigeria, from the chartered bus that ferried us back and forth. The 12-Seater jet-on-wheels that had the interior of a private jet and you just may be deceived on Instagram – where superficiality thrives – into thinking it was a chartered plane.
Before departing Lagos, first we had to take a quick trip to Ports Health Authority, to obtain yellow cards for two journos who hadn’t secured theirs.
Those little, yellow insignificant looking objects can prevent you from entering any country regardless of the miles covered to get there.
After securing the last bit of our travel requirement, we sailed off in our chartered bus and the journey out of Nigeria was largely uneventful even as we crossed Ojo, Agbara and Badagry.
But upon arrival at the famous and infamous Seme border, our troubles began.
The border officials, apparently accustomed to accepting some form of gratification from ‘Marcopolo buses’, expected that we’d do the needful.
But the difference between our 2 Marcopolo buses and the regular ones was the number of seats and lush interior.
At every check point and at the border, it infuriated, amused and enthralled them to discover that our chartered bus had just 12 seats as opposed to about 40-50 seats which they expected.
Consequently, they gave us hell at the Seme border and forcefully took over 3 hours of our lives when it became apparent we just won’t part with money.
After that ordeal, we made our way into Benin Republic – and as I breathed in the air – for a moment, I was 9-years-old again, in Ikare-Akoko, Ondo state – whence I was born and formed.
The ambiance, scenery, fashion and cautious attitude of the people was reminiscent of the Nigeria of the 1990s – when order was prevalent while development was not widespread.
I was lost in my trip down memory lane when the voice of our travel guide jolted me back to reality. From thence onwards until the end of the trip, that voice was our point of reference in Benin Republic.
After a 30 minutes drive, we finally arrived at what is regarded as one of the best hotels in the city – Sun Beach Hotel.
Our weary legs and numb backsides couldn’t wait to hop out of our buses to grab the available seats in the hotel lobby.
After checking in, getting to decompress and refresh in our rooms, we headed out again, to a restaurant – La Teranga – to eat proper food after being on the road for hours and ingesting a lot of junk.
I had white rice and goat meat kebab with a very funky sauce.
We assembled in the hotel conference room to get to the business of the trip – which was to make use of Google apps over the course of our tour.
Taiwo Kola-Ogunlade of Google Nigeria gave each participant, a Google Nexus 5s phone and MTN SIM cards that we’d use in the country which had only recently witnessed a presidential election.
After Taiwo had properly schooled us on the usage of Google Maps, Google Translate and Google Now – a personal assistant tailored for just you – we headed out to The Forest of the Sacred King where we would meet Papa Legba.
The forest of King Kpasse has been a sacred place in Ouidah for hundreds of years, and only Voodoo priests and priestesses were allowed to enter until 1992 when it was opened to the public for the first annual Voodoo Arts and Culture Festival.
King Kpasse ruled the Xweda people in the 16th century and at this time, the Kings of Dahomey were looking to expand their kingdom. To escape being captured, Kpasse fled to the sacred forest and turned himself into a tree.
The entrance to the sacred forest is guarded by two panthers, and the forest has several Voodoo gods and temples.
Most of these temples and some parts of the forest are closed to the public as they are reserved for Voodoo ceremonies.
For obvious reasons, the most prominent of the gods – to us tourists – was Papa Legba, a mediator between the human beings and the spirit world. He is also the god of virility.
This particular tree, legend has it, fell over in 1988 when there was a strong storm and it blocked the forest path. When the workers came to cut up the tree, they discovered it had put itself back up again.
The next stop was Chacha Place, the site of the old slave market where the slaves were auctioned under the big tree.
Don Francisco De Souza, a famous slave trader, who was born in Brazil, went to Ouidah to make his fortune in the slave trade business. He rose to become the most important and successful slave trader in West Africa.
He was sent to prison by King Andonzan but was rescued by King Ghezo and together they overthrew King Andonzan, securing De Souza’s position and allowing him to carry on building his slavery empire.
He married more than 50 local women and had over 100 children. The De Souza family house still stands overlooking Chacha Place and is occupied by his descendants who have become accepted into the society of Ouidah in spite of their chequered history.
The Tree of Forgetfulness
The Tree of Forgetfulness was planted by King Agadja, one of the Dahomey Kings who ruled from 1718 to 1732.
The tree was blessed with magical powers which helped the captured slaves forget their past life and their identities before they were put onto the boats for America.
Men walked round it nine times and women seven times.
The tree is no longer there and a statue of a mermaid stands in its place, which represents the sea and the journey to the new life of slavery.
The Zomachi monument and the Memorial of Remembrance
This monument symbolises repentance and reconciliation.
It was built in 1998, when the leading citizens and elders of Ouidah held a ceremony to ask forgiveness from God for the sins of the ancestors who assisted in the slave trade.
Many descendants of slaves visit Oiudah each year from the Americas as the Zomachi was built to represent the link between the American descendants and the residents of Ouidah.
Every year on the 3rd Sunday in January, a ceremony of repentance and reconciliation takes place in the Zomachi.
The Door of No Return
As the tales have it, once you cross ‘The Door of No Return’, there’s no hope for you anymore.
But we returned to tell the tale of the slaves, who were ferried away hundreds of years ago, to strange lands – for unpaid labour.
When captured, the slaves were taken from their villages to the slave market in Chacha Place, around the Tree of Forgetfulness, after which they were taken to the dungeon prisons.
Their journey climaxes with the 3.5km walk to the Door of No Return.
In honour of the Door of No Return, a monument was built at the beach head, featuring murals which depicted the journey of the slaves – bound in chains.
On each sides of the Door are Voodoo statues welcoming the souls of dead slaves back to their homeland.
After being roundly sobered by the tales of the slaves, we were worn out – mentally, emotionally and physically. We needed to fill our insides.
We had lunch at a sea-side restaurant – Casa Del Papa, where we were entertained by a local band, a human bull and dancers depicting demons.
Ganvie (Venice of Africa)
Bright, sunny and the streets full of colour – Cotonou cut the picture of Lagos at its best on a Saturday – when weddings and all forms of parties most often take place.
But we were not to spend the day in Cotonou – for our tour programme indicated that we’d be visiting what’s dubbed ‘The Venice of Africa’ – the floating village of Ganvie, which lies in the Lake Nokoue.
Obviously, we were transported to Ganvie by means of a boat, and while many of us were still stuck in the reverie of the scenery, we heard singing coming from afar.
We had previously passed a funeral procession, hence, we naturally assumed it was another boat filled with mourners but alas! it was our welcome party.
A group of elderly women, chant-singing their local songs at the top of their voices, escorted our boats into Ganvie, the town whose foundation is water.
The King’s Palace in Porto Novo
After touring through Ganvie and even patronizing a local craft/art shop, we embarked on the journey to our next stop – Palace of the King of Porto Novo.
Porto Novo is a town with rich history and inhabited by Yoruba-speaking as well as Portuguese and French-speaking folks.
We were taken on a tour of the palace museum where we got to relive the life of the kings that reigned hundreds of years ago.
Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures, some of the memories didn’t need to be captured by a camera lens – they simply stuck – especially the room of death where kings go into and after they come out, their demise is always expected.
Done with Porto Novo, we looked forward to our last meal and to make it very elaborate, we decided to rent out a restaurant where we were to cook our own dinner.
We went to the local market to buy foodstuffs and while we were still in tourist-mode – taking pictures and filming the market setting – the market women got hostile.
Vehemently, they protested our use of cameras, hence we had to oblige and concentrate on the task at hand – getting foodstuff for the last supper in Cotonou, after almost 3 days of art, beauty and a history so rich.
After a supper filled with effervescence, camaraderie and pictures, we dragged ourselves to our king-sized hotel beds for one last sleep.
In the morning after, there hung in the air – even whilst in Cotonou – a rich feeling of nostalgia which stuck around as we journeyed together again in our chartered private buses, back to Nigeria.
Not even the 25 grueling checkpoints on the way back, could shake off the feeling, even till now, it yet lingers.