The overriding image one has of our continent and beloved Africa, is of women burying their children, of women fleeing tyranny and of women carrying their children and their few household valuables. It is of women tending the fields, caring for the sick, and running household and rural economies.
This image of strong women in times of terrible sadness is often coupled with images of women finding solutions when their families have no food, of women sharing when they do not have to, of women building peace while men make war.
And even in the division of labour in Ganvie, where men fish, children school and women take fish to the market and ensure households are catered for, it is the women who seem to shoulder the greatest burden on local economies. They have to paddle some 8 kilometres up and down the channel to take fish to the market and they have created local markets within Ganvie to buy and sell goods and services.
In short, they remain the backbone of our societies and economies.
Who would have thought almost 300 years ago in Ganvie, Benin, that today tourists will be staying at a hotel on stilted housing built by people trying to escape the slave trade. Of course, during the 17th century, the Tofinu people (from today’s Togo) needed to escape the slave warriors. In order to evade capture, the Tofinu, who knew that the slave capturers (Fon warriors) were not allowed to fight on water, built their community on Lake Nokoue, near Cotonou, Benin.
For almost 300 years the community has continued to live, work, school and survive in stilted housing in Ganvie (which means place of safety).
The community of over 30,000 people survive on fish, with a division of labour where men fish (usually in designated areas allocated to their family) and women then paddle some 8 kilometres in dugout canoes to sell the fish at a fish market. Children go to schools which are part of the stilted community.
More recently a small tourism trade has been established with hotels and other accommodation available, using solar as a more modern means of lighting.
Maintaining theecological integrityof cities is usually a key strategic objective of any city. And yet, on a daily basis this is the one area in which the private-public-community divides are becoming increasingly apparent. Most governments have a responsibility to balance private sector interests (where the generation of profit rules) with community interests (where individual and neighbourhood amenity rules) in the overall interests of the public good. But equally these interests must operate in ways that are environmentally sustainable.
In Cotonou, Benin, planning processes have not stopped the development of shacks in areas which will create huge management problems as governance improves. Here, households live on the beach at an estuary and in a place which on weekends is vibrant with people wanting recreation. Clearly without water and sanitation, and as their densities grow, these communities will challenge the citiy as it strives to build a more environmentally sustainable city.
Managing these different interests is never easy, with officials being seen as anti-developmental by business, too pro-business by communities and too ineffective by most in stemming individual interests.. But in the end, if we are to leave this earth to future generations in a better condition than we found it, we must make sure we strive to ensure cities maintain and develop some ecological integrity.
Having travelled from Johannesburg via Nairobi and Lagos, arriving late at night at Cotonou’s rather drab Cardinal Bernardin Gantin airport, and without the luggage travelling with us, does not make for a welcoming feeling.
But just a few minutes down the road on the way to the hotel was the most unexpected find in an unexpected place. Fully lit at night were a couple of containers strung together, was a restaurant and acting as a beacon inviting us to visit.
When we visited we found excellent food and drink at prices half as much as the hotels and with ambience and décor and relaxed vibe that urged you to come back each night.
Packed up during the day these containers allow roads and sidewalks to operate without hindrance. But at night, the node comes alive. Occasionally, they throw street parties and show movies on the street with the community coming out to relax and enjoy the environment. Of course, the more people there are around the safer things are.
Safe, easy to manage and creating a spot of light in an otherwise rather dark area of Cotonou, Code Bar bar (firstname.lastname@example.org) combines warmth, friendliness and easy-going African atmosphere with a simple, practical design that works well.