Thriving traditional cultures, renowned art forms, flamboyantly colorful festivals, mask dances, and a dazzling ethnic mosaic are the golden gems of tribal West Africa. Our unique PhotoQuest takes you to Benin to discover lost tribal worlds guided by ancient spirits.
Visit the coast for the annual festival of voodoo, where people dressed up in traditional costumes perform unique rituals and ceremonies in devotion to ancient gods. While there, one should expect to bump into the earthly manifestations of voodoo spirits, photograph practitioners, trance-dances and learn about the awesome power that voodoo spirits still hold over people.
Photograph a private dance performance
Photograph private Voodoo ceremonies: Egungun, Ganbada divinity ceremony and Sapata divinity ceremony dedicated to the god of the earth
Enjoy dances, libations, masks and official speeches as part of the festival program
Photograph a traditional Ashanti funeral, attended by mourners wearing beautifully red or black togas
January 5: Depart your home for Cotonou, Benin (COO)
January 6: - Cotonou, Benin
Arrival in Cotonou, Benin. Transfer from airport to your hotel. Welcome dinner and overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin.
January 7: Benin
Today we will be photographing private ceremonies. Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin
January 8: Ganvie, Benin
After breakfast, take a sensational visit to Ganvie, a village on the water commonly referred to as the ‘Venice of West Africa.’ Witness firsthand the people of Ganvie carrying out their daily routine as vendors in dugout canoes piled high with wares. Enjoy a day of photographing at the floating market and relaxing on a canoe ride along the waterways of this exotic 300-year-old village. After lunch photograph a private Egungun ceremony. Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin.Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin
January 9: Allada, Benin (Mini Voodoo Festival)
After breakfast, depart to Allada (1 hour drive) , the cradle of African Traditional Religion. Along the way, tour the temple dedicated to the sacred Python, which is believed to give vitality and protection. Photograph the sacred forest which houses many shrines dedicated to various deities. In a remote hidden village we will photograph a Voodoo ceremony: the frenetic rhythm of the drums and the chants of the adepts help calling in the voodoo spirit who then takes possession of some of the dancers. They fall into a deep trance: eyes rolling back, grimaces, convulsions, insensitivity to fire or pain. Photograph a private Ganbada divinity ceremony.
Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin.
January 10: Ouidah (Voodoo Festival), Benin
Spend today delving into the mysteries of voodoo at Ouidah’s annual voodoo festival. Although there are many festivals around the country, this is the largest. You can expect to see followers of the voodoo gods, from the elaborately costumed Zangbetos, to the followers of Kokou, renowned for injuring themselves as a way to reach the divine. Around the edges of the main performance area, you will discover groups from various voodoo temples performing their own rites and rituals. This visit promises fascinating insight into a much maligned religion and will be unlike anything you may have seen before! The celebrations will also be filled with singing, chanting, dancing, beating of drums and drinking gin. Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin.
January 11: Kokou & Abikou Voodoo Ceremony
After breakfast at your hotel, depart for a Kokou voodoo ceremony in Ouidah. Kokou is one of the most highly feared warriors under gods. It is the most violent and powerful of the Yoruba spirits and the voodoo rituals surrounding it involve its followers falling into a deep trance with rapidly beating drums. Once possessed by the spirit, the body in which the Kokou inhabits may remain in a trance all day and in due course
demonstrate a thirst for blood with glass bottles and knives swallow sharp objects or repeatedly beat its head against the wall until it bleeds productively, revealing a high tolerance to pain. One who fails to respect the Kokou during a ceremonial trance may have a sacred calabash placed on his head until it becomes excessively heavy. After lunch photograph the Abikou voodoo ceremony. Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin.
January 12: Sapata & Zangbeto Voodoo Ceremony
After breakfast at your hotel, depart your hotel to witness a Sapata voodoo ceremony. Afterwards, depart for a Zangbeto voodoo ceremony. Zangbeto are a costume that resembles a haystack. They are able to fall into a trance which, according to tradition, enables their bodies to be inhabited by spirits who possess special knowledge of the actions of people. However Yoruba legend tells that there are no humans under the costume, only spirits of the night. Traditionally, the Zangbetos were the policemen of Benin and were the main guardians of law in the country before the official law establishment. They are said to form a secret society which can only be strictly attended by Zangbetos, and when in a trance are said to have magical abilities, such as swallowing splinters of glass without coming to any harm and scaring away even witches. In a trance, the Zangbeto are said to evoke a power that inhabited the earth long before the appearance of man and provide a source of wisdom and continuity for the people of Benin. Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin.
January 13: Cotonou - Royal Palaces of Abomey
After breakfast, depart for a spellbinding morning at the Royal Palaces of Abomey. Here, the palaces of 11 of the 12 kings who ruled the Kingdom of Abomey between 1625 and 1900 are built within the same enclosure, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Under the twelve kings the kingdom became one of the most powerful of the West African coast. These palaces were not only the decision- making center of the kingdom, but also the place where crafts were developed and treasures stored. The palacesare no longer occupied and those of King Ghézo and King Glélé have become the Historical Museum of Abomey. Overnight at Maison Rouge Cotonou, Benin.
January 14: Cotonou, Benin- Back Home
After breakfast, spend the rest of the day packing, relaxing or doing last minute shopping. Transfer to the airport for check-in and final departure back home
Mirjam Evers is a New York City based travel photographer who specializes in travel images, portraiture, landscape photography and adventure images. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Evers has photographed in more than 90 countries, including many of the most exotic places in the world. Evers' photographs are indicative of her unique capacity to personally connect with diverse cultures and communities. Her eye for location lighting is highly stylized and works to illustrate and heighten the unique characteristics of each international locale. She is able to transcend cultural and language barriers with an intangible spirit that is conveyed in every image. Evers is one of the founders of Photo Quest.
Selected Publications: AFAR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Departures, Golf Magazine, AARP, Outdoor Photographer, Outside Magazine, PDN, American Photo, Popular Photography, Digital Photo, MSN Travel and Town & Country Magazine.
A valid passport is required for your trip. Be sure to check the expiration date. Your passport must be valid for six months after your date of exit from West Africa. In addition, we recommend your passport has at least two completely blank visa pages for every country you will be visiting. Be sure to allow sufficient time to acquire this before your trip. It is a good idea to carry photocopies of your passport’s photo page and any acquired visa pages for your trip in case your passport is lost or as an additional piece of identification, as well as two extra passport photos.
US citizens need a visa for Benin. Do not apply for the visas directly with the consulate, since you may encounter problems. You can use various companies to help expedite your visas, like Passport Visas Express (PVE). On the PVE website, purchase the Benin Tourist Visa (valid for 3 years). PVE can also be reached by phone at 888-596-6028. If you are a citizen of any country other than the US, check with a local consulate for entry requirements.
Ou hotel has wi-fi or a lobby/computer room with internet access. Keep in mind that sometimes the internet may be very slow or not work at all. There are also internet cafes in towns.
The currency in Benin is the CFA (the West African franc, linked to the Euro). We suggest you bring most of your money in US and Euros cash (travelers checks are not recommended as they can be difficult and time-consuming to cash). For US cash, new $50 and $100 bills get a higher rate than old $1s and $5s. It is important that your bills be clean and crisp; old, faded, ripped, or soiled bills will be rejected. Only a few hotels change Euros to CFA for free, and they would only have enough cash for one or two people.
during the trip. NOTE: USD bills need to be dated 2006 or newer.
Benin is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Daylight Savings Time in the US may affect these times.
The international dialing code for Benin is 229. Please contact your cell phone company for specific instructions for international use.
West Africa has 220-volt current. Plugs usually have three rectangular prongs or two or three round pins. Electricity can be unreliable and subject to brownouts, even in the larger cities.
Mythologized by bloodthirsty Hollywood films, voodoo originates from this region of West Africa, having been carried to New World countries like Haiti by slaves centuries ago. Voodoo is one of the most important religious systems in this region, an animistic religion comprising of many hundreds of different gods, although there is belief in one supreme being. Togo and Benin are dotted with voodoo temples, manned by priests, but voodoo ceremonies can take place anywhere and it is quite possible to stumble upon them throughout the region. Ceremonies can take many forms but often involve followers falling into trances, accompanied by the beat of pounding drums and dancing. Often adepts will become insensitive to pain, slashing themselves with sharp objects or breaking bottles over their heads. Sacrifice also plays an important part of the religion, and although it is most common to sacrifice chickens, many other creatures are also offered up to the gods such as goats, dogs and cats. Great significance is placed on fetishes, inanimate objects where the spirits are said to reside and which can become focal points for worship.
In the centre of the village a large fire lights up the faces of the participants, who dance to the hypnotic beat of the drums eventually leaping into the glowing embers. They pick up burning coals and pass them over their bodies and even put them in their mouths without injuring themselves or showing any sign of pain. It’s difficult to explain such a performance. Is it matter of courage? Magic? Maybe it really is the fetishes that protect them from the fire.
Abomey was once the capital of one of Africa’s greatest nations, Dahomey, whose rulers struck terror into the heart of surrounding tribes as they made war, conquered land and captured slaves. Its kings built numerous palaces, only two of which remain, the rest having been burned to the ground when the French attacked. Dahomey was a powerful kingdom, and put up fierce resistance to French occupation but in the end was defeated. The kingdom employed a large army, including regiments of female ‘Amazons’. The remaining palaces have been turned into a museum which contains artefacts from Dahomey including a throne which sits on top of human skulls.
The Ashanti people were one of the most powerful nations in Africa until the end of the 19th century, when the British annexed Ashanti country, bringing it into their Gold Coast colony. Originally from the northern savannah regions, the Ashanti people migrated south, carving farms out of the wild rainforest. The region was rich in gold, and trade in this precious metal developed quickly, with small tribal states developing and vying for control of resources. In the late 17th century the Ashanti ruler brought these states together in a loose confederation and the Ashanti Kingdom was born. Their social organization is centered on the Ashantehene figure, the king of all the Ashanti. The Ashanti are the lords of the gold, so they dress themselves with it during ceremonies. The Ashanti Kingdom was famed for its gold, royalty, ceremony and the development of a bureaucratic judicial system.
The Tamberma live in the far north of Benin and Togo. Once famous for their nudity, increasing outside influences mean that they now wear clothes, although many people will still sport traditional adornments. The Tamberma are both hunters and farmers and it is not uncommon to see groups of Tamberma men returning from a hunt with their bows and arrows. The big draw however is the fantastic architecture found in this region. Tamberma houses, called ‘tatas’ are robust fortress type dwellings, with separate enclosures for humans, livestock and grain, and were easily defended in case of slave raids. Some houses also contain wells, meaning that a family could remain there for some time, prompting raiders to give up and look for easier prey.
Kumasi is the historical and spiritual capital of the Ashanti Kingdom. With its population of nearly one million, Kumasi is a sprawling city with a fantastic central market where traders from all over Africa come to sell their wares. Every kind of Ashanti craft (leather goods, pottery, kente cloth) is found here, along with just about every kind of tropical fruit, vegetable, and provision. We visit the Ghana National Cultural Centre, which has a rich collection of Ashanti artefacts, housed in a reproduction of a traditional Ashanti royal house.
Computer / Digital Accessories
Laptop with charger and PS and Lightroom or Photo Mechanic (not mandatory)
Portable hard drives
All cables for drives, computer, card readers, storage devices, etc.
Power converters/adapters for all international Quests
Cover for camera (for shooting in the rain); Fotosharp makes simple, inexpensive covers
Carbon fiber tripod
Remote shutter release for night photography
Small headlamp and flashlight
Memory cards (bring plenty)
Sensor cleaning supplies
Flash with plenty of batteries
20mm 1.8, or 16-35 and 24-70 2.8
70-200mm with a converter
Lens hoods for all lenses
Lint-free cloth to clean lenses and blower ball for dust
$8200 based on double occupancy.
Single supplements are available for an additional $1650.
All Visa expenses Benin
Airport taxes, fuel surcharges and security charges
Vaccinations, yellow fever immunization, anti-malaria, and prophylaxis (all highly recommended)
Personal items: beverages, laundry, phone calls, email, souvenirs, etc
Hotel accommodations necessitated by changes in air schedules or missed connections.
Travel protection insurance (highly recommended)
Accommodation at hotels mentioned or similar
Transportation in a minibus with A/C and 4-WD vehicles
All visits to sites, villages, monuments
English speaking guide and local guides at the various villages
Tourist facilities are very limited in the remote regions and small villages we will be visiting. There are few first-class hotels anywhere outside the cities, but rest assured that we always try to book the best possible accommodations. Hotels will be comfortable and clean, but very basic in terms of amenities.
Frequent stops will be made to give us ample opportunity to stroll around villages and markets to see and experience the differences in architecture, dress, and culture among the many tribes in West Africa. Questers should understand that this trip involves long drives in hot and humid weather. The physical shape you are in will be an important factor in your enjoyment of your trip.
The weather is rather hot and humid, and you need to be tolerant to temperatures in the mid 80’s to mid-90's. Moreover, some roads are dirt and this can cause breathing and eye irritation from the dust. By signing up for this Quest, the traveller must accept those challenges and agree to be tolerant, flexible and patient should a delay, detour or inefficiency arise.
It is highly advisable to purchase travel protection insurance.