Being in Villa Karo during the rain season is a way to witness some of the fast progressing effects of climate change, such as the rising of the sea levels. What can we learn from being here in this time and place?
Text: Nuno Escudeiro and Nikolaus von Schlebruegge
Photos: Nikolaus von Schlebruegge
Nuno Escudeiro is a Portuguese documentary filmmaker working with social and political themes. Nikolaus von Schlebruegge is an Austrian director of photography, specialized in documentaries. They have been working together ever since completing their studies at Zelig film school in Bolzano, Italy.
Two days into our trip to Grand-Popo, we are invited to visit the village of Befa on the margin of the Mono river.
It is Sunday. The morning light floods the gray sand of the river bank. The women sing, the men sacrifice a pig and two roosters, the younger children play the ritual “tam-tam” they have been learning from the older ones, a usual voodoo ceremony to the village spirit takes place.
Just like we remembered it. We feel welcome and happy to see our friends again, to be suddenly deep into this culture we had learned to love on our first trip here four years ago.
Village on the river bank, flooded by the Mono River. Photo: Nikolaus von Schlebruegge
It all feels so familiar, yet some details are impossible to ignore. The voodoo temple where the ritual takes place is now literally an island in the water. Many of the houses by the river bank lay in ruins, and just a few meters away from us, people are rebuilding their homes. We loose track of time, entertained by dancing and singing. Within a few hours, we notice the water rising further, claiming more of the dry land.
The water surrounds us, even though we are at the end of the flood season, when the worst should be already behind. For the next weeks, the rain will retreat and the recovery will start, as if these villages were never touched by the fury of the waters, with its people having to flee to a drier piece of land for a few months.
Four years have passed since our last stay in Grand-Popo. Back in 2017, we came here as residents of Villa Karo to work on a film idea regarding how climate change is affecting this region. In 2021, we came back to continue to work on it. We quickly understood that nature has become more aggressive since we left.
For the past years, the Mono river has flooded these villages every year.
Just across the sand dune, the sea has also started to invade some of them more frequently.
This is the beginning of an event that will change the shape of the earth, that may make some cultures and their heritage disappear forever.
Fishermen driving a boat around the stone wall built to stop coastal erosion. Photo: Nikolaus von Schlebruegge
It is complex to read the signs. The floods in the Mono river have been common throughout centuries. Coastal erosion is a common phenomenon, over the centuries it is said to have already taken a big part of the sand dune in front of the sea. It is indeed normal for these natural phenomena to occur. However, It is not normal that it happens every year and that it gets increasingly more common.
As scientists affirm, sea level rising begins this way, with the floods taking over gradually bigger territories, becoming more and more aggressive. Later, the sand is devoured by a sea that rises above what we today call sea-level. How will Grand-popo look like within a few decades - one cannot even imagine.
We have heard the stories: Miami that floods every year, the Polynesian Islands risk to soon disappear, and about many places on the coast of Europe where sand needs to be carried in to give an illusion that its shape stays the same.
And, yet, it all feels distant, somehow. It all feels like an exaggerated Hollywood plot, too far away from us, something we will surely survive without a scratch.
The battle between humans and nature is on. Our technical proficiency is being called to use. We build walls, we change the shape of the earth, we do all we can to keep on this illusion of normalcy. But what happens to countries and communities that don’t have the resources to act on it?
Houses by the seaside destroyed by the Beninese government. Photo: Nikolaus von Schlebruegge
For a moment, I thought that that was the fate of Grand-Popo, to be left to the mercy of nature and just disappear within a few years. I was relieved to know that with the help of the World Bank, a new infrastructure is being put into play. The Benin government is developing an enormous project to build a wall in the sea that will break the waves before they arrive to the coast and in this way slow down coastal erosion.
But this change does not come without creating problems. The project for building the wave-breaking wall started already near Cotonou. All along the coast, villages are being destroyed and people displaced to give way to its construction. Grand-Popo is no exception and this construction will come to it soon.
When I walk in the village of Gbecon and speak with the locals, they show me the parts of the village that will be destroyed. Some will deny it will happen, others will assure you that the village will be destroyed and displaced. The future is unpredictable: tt seems that what is coming is to benefit the population, but then again a four lane highway will be built on the sand dune just in front of Villa Karo, crossing through the whole of Grand-Popo.
This is it, right here, what it means to live on the forefront of climate change. Not necessarily a certainty that the place you call home will be destroyed, but a heavy uncertainty about what will happen, about your future and that of your community.
We, in the global north, have created a problem and we are not willing to change our ways to revert it. We keep on hiding behind our certainty that things will work out, feeling no need to change the ways we consume, appropriate, build, destroy, move on.
The people who pay for it are here, stuck between the floods of the river and the sea, waiting for a flood, an eviction or a highway, waiting for whatever might come their way and fighting their way through it. This is it, the consequence of the western ways, the destruction of security and a safe future of many people around the world we will never get the chance to meet or hear about.
Village of Gbecon seen from the river Mono. Photo: Nikolaus von Schlebruegge