The Floating Village of Ganvié, Benin – West Africa’s Venice

Local villagers navigate with their wooden boats through Ganvié’s murky canals

photography by: Dr. Ondřej Havelka (cestovatel)/ Wikimedia Commons

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Since the dawn of humanity, the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has been living along a body of water, whether it is a sea, a river or a lake. To the bewilderment of many, some communities across the globe took this trend into another level, as their members live, work and play entirely on water. Often dubbed the Venice of Africa, the Beninese village of Ganvié is exactly that, a cluster of stilted houses whose streets are canals, and cars are canoes.

Providing a vital lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people who live along its shores, Lake Nokoué is the largest lake in Benin, spanning over an area of 160 square kilometers. This body of water is separated from the Atlantic Ocean solely by a narrow sliver of land, on which the country’s largest city, Cotonou, is located.


The lake’s verdant shoreline is dotted with copious aquafarms and stilted communities, yet it is a village named Ganvié that truly stands out for its sheer size and fame. Nestled about ten kilometers north of Cotonou, the water-drenched settlement is home to anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, making it by far the continent’s most populous floating village.


As you’d expect, instead of vehicles and asphalt-paved roads, Ganvié is crisscrossed by a vast network of waterways, along which dugout canoes transport passengers and various goods. The village comprises more than 3,000 stilted houses of varying sizes, materials and architectural styles, yet the most common type is a simple home, with stilts made of extremely durable wood, walls constructed of palm fronds and bamboo, and roofs thatched or fashioned from corrugated metal sheets.


This densely populated hamlet can trace back its origins to the 17th century, when much like today, the region was embroiled in multiple ethnic skirmishes. Story has that Ganvié was originally founded by members of the Tofinu tribe from the coastal areas, who fled the fearsome Fon warriors as the latter routinely captured and sold them to Portuguese slave traders.

According to a local lore, the lake’s murky waters were far more than just a protective natural barrier, as Fon tribesmen vehemently believed that the devil resides between its confines, and thus avoided venturing onto its expanse for fear of encountering malevolent spirits.


Deemed as “watermen” for their fishing prowess, the Tofinus swiftly adapted to their new home given that the lake is teeming with fish and crustaceans, which even today remain a major source of livelihood across the community.


Over the years, the stilted hamlet has ballooned in size, so much so in fact that nowadays, people regularly refer to it as the Venice of Africa. With 10,000 visitors annually, Ganvié receives a mere fraction of the 30 million tourists who visit its Italian counterpart every year, not to mention its lack of basic utilities like access to clean water, electricity and sewage system. Yet, what this place lacks in grandeur and modern amenities, it more than makes up for in mind-boggling sights to awe at.


To get here, one must first take a communal taxi from Eglise Saint Michel in the heart of Cotonou to Ganvié Boat Station in Abomey-Calavi. Once there, the sole viable option to explore the village is to join a guided tour (priced between 3000 and 10000 CFA) since local regulations restrict the use of regular boats to residents only.