The fight to save Benin’s historic mansions

A social media user posted about the poor state of the historic Afro-Brazilian homes in Porto Novo.
A social media user posted about the poor state of the historic Afro-Brazilian homes in Porto Novo. © Adjao Ali
Text by: Hermann Boko
9 min

The historic Afro-Brazilian style homes that are still standing in Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin, are an important part of the city’s history, marked by both the slave trade and colonisation. These homes were built more than a hundred years ago, when they were popular with both the descendants of slaves and rich merchants. But today, most of the homes are derelict, meaning this important part of history may disappear.  

Advertising

Adjao Ali doesn’t want the city of Porto-Novo to lose an important piece of its cultural heritage. On February 8, Ali, who is a college student studying English, took to Twitter to post several photos of the city’s Afro-Brazilian homes, most of which were built more than a century ago. Today, many of these homes are derelict. One is the home that Ali shares with his father and several cousins. 

Adjao Ali, using the handle @DiscovPortoNovo, posted this tweet, which warns that Porto-Novo is at risk of losing its Afro-Brazilian heritage, as many of the buildings built in this style are falling into disrepair. "Tweeting can work wonders so help me get the attention of those in power to save this cultural heritage (Afro Brazilian buildings) in Porto-Novo, in Benin, in Africa, in the world… [retweet] appreciated."

 

My great-grandfather built this villa in 1890. He was a nurse and was an important person in town. His name was Ali Tidjani, but everyone called him "Doto", which means "doctor" in Goun, the language spoken here. 

In the years after my great-grandfather died, his children and grandchildren progressively moved away, abandoning the family home. However, in 2015, my father decided to return and live here. Now, there are about a dozen of us living in the home. 

The home is big and impresses visitors. But the walls are cracked and are crumbling in places. The bamboo woodwork also looks ready to fall down. A few months ago, one of the walls in the home collapsed. We are afraid that the whole thing will collapse. The home is more than a century old and needs work. 

There are a number of homes like this in my neighborhood. The government should help us to save them because they are an integral part of the city’s charm and originality. 

'The Afro-Brazilians were the richest people in town' 

The history of Porto-Novo was marked by the slave trade and colonisation. Millions of enslaved people were shipped from Porto Novo and other towns in Benin like Ouidah to the Americas. After the slave trade was abolished, some freed people and their descendents who were living in Brazil decided to return to Benin. They brought with them the architectural style favored by the Portuguese in Brazil.

Afro Brazilian architecture is the confluence of Baroque style and local building techniques. The buildings are built of clay covered with cement. The walls are covered with lime dyed with ochre and adorned with low relief carvings. 

Richard Hounsou is the director of cultural heritage for the city of Porto-Novo. He explains: 

Many European slave traders also stayed on the coasts of Benin after slavery was abolished. Thus, the building styles of these people from Portugal or from other Iberian trading posts in Europe also became part of our city’s architectural landscape.  

The most striking example of this style is the Grand Mosque of Porto-Novo, which is a replica of the San Salvador de Bahia Church in Brazil. The only difference is that the cross was replaced with a star and crescent. 

Porto-Novo’s Grand Mosque was built between 1925 and 1935.
Porto-Novo’s Grand Mosque was built between 1925 and 1935. © Adjao Ali

Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Afro-Brazilians were the richest people in town. They held all the best posts in government. But a century has passed since then and this cultural group no longer possess the same riches. The descendents are struggling to maintain the homes built by their ancestors. 

In 2002, a list was drawn up of 446 Afro Brazilian homes in Porto-Novo. About ten years later, more than a hundred of the homes on the list had disappeared [Editor’s note: These homes were either demolished or had collapsed.] By now, we’ve certainly lost even more. 

'These buildings are disappearing for economic reasons'

Aimé Gonçalves is an architect who specialises in historic preservation in Cotonou. He believes that action must be taken immediately to save these important sites that represent Porto-Novo’s unique identity: 

 

 

Afro-Brazilian architecture prioritises comfort. The clay used means that the home stays cool when it is hot and warm when it is cold. The shutters and jalousie windows provide privacy. The doors and ceilings are richly decorated.  

These buildings are disappearing for economic reasons. Right now, there is a lot of real estate speculation taking place in Porto-Novo, especially in the area around the market. There are a lot of foreigners who come and buy these homes, then destroy them and turn them into modern buildings. 

It’s important to act now to save the city’s unique identity and start restoring these cultural heritage sites. We aren’t moving forward fast enough. The restoration process is so slow that demolitions and alterations are overtaking them. With the progressive disappearance of these buildings, we are losing a vital part of our culture. 

In 2008, the city government restored a home built in 1929 that now houses several municipal services. The restoration of three other homes belonging to different well-known families in Porto-Novo was also completed in 2020 thanks to a World Bank grant of 500,000,000 CFA francs (more than €760,000) through an organisation called Paraud, an urban planning project. One of these restored homes now has a museum of Afro Brazilian heritage. A fourth home is currently being restored. 

"It is expensive to carry out restorations. The city will never have enough money to restore all of the hundreds of Afro-Brazilian homes in our area. We are currently working on restoring about a dozen of these homes. The idea is to set an example and raise awareness amongst the owners of these homes, to encourage them to take care of these properties because they are invaluable," says Richard Hounsou.

There are also private restoration initiatives like the one run by Fondation Zinsou, which restored the Ajavon villa in Ouidah in 2013 and turned it into a modern art museum at an estimated cost of 150,000 euros. But Marie-Cécile Zinsou, the president of the Fondation, said one of the hardest parts was dealing with homes that are jointly possessed.  

La villa Ajavon rénovée qui abrite le musée d'art contemporain de la Fondation Zinsou.
La villa Ajavon rénovée qui abrite le musée d'art contemporain de la Fondation Zinsou. © Dominique Burton

 

There is a desire to renovate these cultural heritage sites so that they can continue to live. The problem is that many of these homes are jointly owned by many people, which makes things extremely complicated as they often struggle to come to an agreement. It took us four or five years to find the Ajavon villa and buy it. 

When Ali posted photos of his family home on Twitter, he said he received several messages from private individuals who offered to lease the villa, renovate it and turn it into an art and culture museum. His dream of seeing his Afro Brazilian home restored may come true if his relatives, the joint possessors of the property, can come to an agreement.