Benin has the hottest attractions in all of West Africa - the stilted fishing villages in the lagoon near Porto Novo. The towns however - and even Cotonou, the biggest - may seem unremarkable to the short-term visitor. It's the kind of place that hides its best features. You need to be patient and observant to glimpse many of the cultural highlights of Benin. Food lovers needn't worry, though. Beninese food is possibly the best in the region, and is widely available. Voodooism and fetishism are still widely practiced and many of the associated artefacts attract and repel visitors in equal numbers.
Benin might be small and obscure, but when it does something, it does it in a big way. The people in the area established the biggest slave trade in West Africa, were members of the most powerful kingdom, have had the third-highest number of coups in Africa (and that means a lot!) and was the only country in West Africa to wholeheartedly adopt Marxism. While Benin shares many of the problems of its neighbours such as bad roads and infrastructure, poor water and health conditions and institutionalised corruption, it is comparatively violence-free, is richer and economically stronger than most of its neighbours and has the best beaches and landscapes.
Benin is located in West Africa, and covers a land area of 110,620 sq km (44,000 sq mi). The country is a long stretch of land perpendicular to the Coast of the Gulf of Guinea. It is bordered on the north by Burkina Faso and the Republic of Niger, on the east by the Federal Republic of Nigeria and on the west by the Republic of Togo. The coastline is 124km (77mi) long across the south, with the land stretching north-south for 672km (420mi) from the Niger River to the Bight of Benin. It is about two-thirds the size of Portugal and a fraction smaller than Pennsylvania.
The country is divided into five natural regions: a coastal area; a plateau zone called "la terre de barre"; another plateau with wooded savannah; a hilly region in the northwest (the Atakora), which contains the water reservoir for Benin and Niger; and the fertile Niger plains in the northeast. In the south, cultivated land including immense palmgroves and coconut plantations lines the coast.
Benin achieved her borders due to the legacy of 19th century colonialism. These borders could not have been more inappropriate, because of the number of kingdoms which had to coexist along the coast, these were all powerful kingdoms. The wealthiest kingdoms owed their wealth to the slave trade. The slave trade began in the sixteenth century with the Portuguese. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Britain and France progressively monopolised the trade. 1727 the three European nations forts, on the coast at Ouidah were recaptured. European interests moved from the slave trade to the palm oil plantations. The French were the most successful in this and they gradually declared protectorates over certain areas of the coast. In 1863 the British bombed Porto Novo this helped the French. The French defeated the King and declared a protectorate over the whole region pacification of the rest of the nation was not completed until 1914 and still failed to succeed to put a stop to opposition to French rule. Educated French Dahomians and former slaves constructed and circulated an anti colonialist newspaper.
Between World War 2 and independence education and trade unionism were used successfully in the making of the nation. Dahomians were employed by the French in the inner administration of other West African colonies. Independence occurred in most French colonies in 1960, workers were forced to return to Benin and became a distinct group of unemployed. For twelve years after its independence Benin was known as Dahomey, this country went from one coup to another until a group of young army officers led by Major Kerekou seized power, they took the country politically to the left. And for many years it was known as the Cuba of West Africa, its policies were based on Marxism and Leninism. It tried to break its ties with the colonial era and so distance itself from the more moderate states of West Africa. This led to tense relations with neighbouring states, border closures and the disruption of trade. In 1977 another coup was attempted led by the French mercenary Bob Denard along with fifty other European mercenaries and thirty Africans, they were forced to withdraw. They left behind documents which showed that Morocco and Gabon had financed the operation and that France was also involved. Relations with Gabon were broken off, leading to the expulsion of some 9000 Benenese from Libreville and French aid was drastically cut. Kerekou's regime survived and many large reforms took place, especially in education and agriculture. Benin is now considered one of the most stable places in Africa, many icy relations with neighbouring states have thawed.
The cultural history of Benin is rich, and for over a century the people's art has brought international attention to the legendary kingdom of Dahomy. Art has served both a functional and spiritual purpose, though before the 19th century, the most accomplished artists worked solely for the ruling kings of Abomey. The history of these times was told in the brightly coloured appliqué tapestries. You will have no problems finding modern examples of this art form. Beninese bronzework is revered by collectors worldwide, though is no longer being produced in the quantities it once was. Bronze casting is said to have been halted after an Ife leader whose predecessor was immortalised in a bronze statue became so enraged he issued a death decree to people working in bronze. Several hundred years later, the ban still seems to be in place. The palace of Abomey also features bas-reliefs, which have been designated by UNESCO as objects of common heritage for humanity.
There is a huge variety of religious and cultural dances that you might encounter in Benin. Some dance is choreographed in groups, but more often it's individual, intricate and amazingly expressive. Dances occur during special festivals such as La Gani, a celebration of culture and identity, but also during spontaneous celebrations. Be on the lookout for dancers as their life-affirming ceremonies are likely to be the most enrapturing thing you will see in the country.
The aspect of Beninese culture that has garnered most interest worldwide is the practice of voodoo, an animistic religion observed by about 70% of the population. The belief is a polytheistic one that sees an interconnectedness of human and spirit worlds. Voodoo is, in a nutshell, the worship of the spirit in all things.
A darker side of Benin culture is the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) - commonly described as 'female circumcision'. Though roundly condemned by international health experts, the practice remains quite widespread, particularly in the north of Benin where some studies suggest that as many as 50% of women have undergone the ritual. Government efforts to eradicate FGM have failed, probably due to the deep-seated, 6000 year old nature of the practice, the social difficulties faced by many women who have not been altered and the healthy profits made by the old women who commonly perform the operation.
Facts about Benin
Full country name:
Republic of Benin
Area: 110,620 sq km (43,140 sq mi)
Population: 6.1 million
Capital city: Porto Novo (pop. 225,000)
People: Fon and Adja (40%), Yoruba (12%), Bariba (9%), Betamaribé, Fulani (6%), and 37 smaller ethnic groups
Language: French (official), Fon, Yoruba and almost fifty other tribal languages
Religion: Animism (Voodoo) (70%), Muslim (15%), Christian (20%)
Government: Democratic republic
President: Mathieu Kérékou
GDP per head: US$1440
Annual growth: 5.5%
Major industries: Textiles, cotton, cigarettes, beverages, construction materials, petroleum, palm products
Major trading partners: Brazil, Portugal, France
Generally a tropical climate.
Average daily temperature 28.5 Celcius/78 Fahrenheit.
Humidity is high for most of the year.
Rainy season in the south May to July and September to December; in the north July to December.
Dry season in the south January to April and August; January to June in the north.
Agriculture: An important part of the economy producing palm oil, maize, cassave, cashew nuts, cotton, rice, fishing.
Mining: Small amount of offshore oil.
Manufacturing: Food processing, textiles, beverages, cement.
Other: No other major contributors.
Official name: People's Republic of Benin.
Population: 5.13 million (1994).
Situation: West Africa.
Area: 112,620 sq km/291,760 sq miles.
Borders with: Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria.
Coasts: Atlantic Ocean.
Capital: Porto Novo.
Major Towns: Cotonou, Abomey.
Chief Port: Cotonou.
Religion: 70% tribal including voodoo; remainder Christian and Muslim.
Rest Day: Sunday.
Electricity: 220V AC, 50Hz.
Physical: Sandy coast leading to lagoons, sea level plains, savannah plateau.
The Akabora mountains in the north west reach 500 meters/1600 feet.
Other: Important local languages include Yoruba, Fon, Bariba and Dendi.
Accepted in places, particularly larger hotels, travel agencies etc.
Banking hours: 08:00 to 11:00 & 15:00 to 17:00 Monday to Friday.
Tribes: The major tribes in this polyglot nation are Fon, Yoruba, Bariba and Dendi.