In colonial Brazil, runaway slaves and free natives formed communities deep within the Amazon as a means of escaping the brutality of Portuguese slavery. A combination of dense vegetation, waterways, and perilous wildlife and disease separated these societies from the slave traders who pursued them.
A small group of people outside of what is now Cotonou, Benin, took advantage of a different set of circumstances to evade capture by the Portuguese. At the time, the powerful West-African Fon tribe was hunting and selling other native tribesman to the Portuguese. While there were few physical impediments protecting the ancestors of today’s Ganvie village from outside attack, Fon religious practice forbade their raiders from advancing on any peoples dwelling on water, laying the groundwork for the Ganvie Lake Village.
Ganvie is a village of roughly 20,000 people that stands on stilts in the middle of Lake Nokoue. The founders of the village fled there to avoid Fon warriors, and in the roughly 500 years that have passed since, Ganvie has developed an intricate and prosperous culture within the constraints of life on the lake.
A school is the only one of Ganvie’s 3,000 buildings that exists on land, although a cemetery mound is currently under construction. The villagers of Ganvie travel almost exclusively by boat, and the few domesticated land-animals they maintain live on plots of grass that spring up from the water. Without a good supply of domesticated animals, Ganvie relies on a complicated network of underwater fencing to corral and farm various fish populations.
The village sits several miles from the nearest shoreline and is about a 4 hour journey from the capital. Ganvie is Africa’s largest lake village.