is commonly associated with voodoo, which is totally relevant. Simply, head to the south: from Cotonou to Porto Novo, and then Ketou, Abomey and then return along the coast to Grand Popo and Ouidah. Anywhere you go you will find voodoo temples, fetishism, oracles, followers of voodoo, masks such as Egun, Zangbeto, Gelede, the king consults voodoo priests before every decision… Voodoo is everywhere. And it is so powerful that it conditions and modifies monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity. On Sunday, a crowd gathers in the churches of the Celestial Church of Christ, practising syncretic religious forms.
Visiting Benin means discovering this religion, which is much richer than the stereotypes that fill the media, while according Voodoo practitioners: “In your churches you pray to God, we, in our voodoo sanctuaries, become God.”
To the north, another important landmark is the Somba group, who build wonderful clay castles as dwellings. A unique example of architecture and sculpture which are among the best traditional constructions of Africa.
Benin also boasts nature parks. West Africa is not a privileged destination in terms of wildlife, although in the extreme north of Benin, during the favourable season, you can visit the the Pendjari National Park, in Natitingou. The numerous elephant, buffalo, and lions will allow you to enjoy a typical African safari experience.
Returning south, the Royal Palace in Abomey, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, offers the possibility of an encounter with the history of the Dahomey kingdom, which has been consolidated based on wars of conquest and trade with European traders established in Grand Popo, Ouidah, Porto Novo. To close: Ganvie, the characteristic village on stilts, whose population is engaged in farming and trade and has been defined as the “Venice of Africa” because in both cases it is a fascinating water-base civilization thanks to the lagoon element that forms an integral part of life of the population.
Daily life takes place on canoes that men, women and children lead easily with the help of long poles. On the fishing canoes, bets are made and songs are sung to accompany the rhythm of the poles. Canoes are also used by women who, while sailing, display the merchandise they take to the market, and take the children to school.
The Latin Quarter of Africa
Not to be outdone by the women, the Beninese men are renowned for their assiduous approach to education. From one generation to the next they study hard at school in the hope of ensuring a higher quality of life for their children and their children’s children. Benin is referred to as the ‘Latin Quarter of Africa’ due to the people’s enquiring minds and intelligence. During colonial times, in Francophone West Africa, most government officials, secretaries, directors and nurses were either Beninese or Togolese.
The town of Ouidah, 40 km West of Cotonou is typically and profoundly African. Ouidah is known as the religious capital of the country due to the numerous festivals that involve singing, chanting, drumming and strange dances. These bear witness to a tradition of beliefs and local superstitions interrupted or changed over hundreds of years. Voodoo was born in the villages that lie between Abomey and Ouidah – a religion whose rites were transported across the Atlantic by the slaves and is still practiced today in the Caribbean. The fetishists of Ouidah are powerful and people travel great distances to consult them. The Temple of the Sacred Pythons, in spite of its modest appearance, houses a fetish that is still respected today. Ouidah is recognized as one of the major ports from which thousands of slaves were transported across the Atlantic. A memorial walk through the majestic coconut groves leads along the route that they took. At various points sculptures, including the “Tree of Forgetfulness” serve as reminders of their difficulties. At the Ocean’s edge a poignant monument, ‘The Gate of No Return’ remembers all those transported on the awaiting ships. Other attractions include walking along the wide avenues of Ouidah, visiting the modern Youth and Cultural Centre, the Cathedral and the history museum, which is housed in the buildings of the Old Portuguese fort.
Villages on the water
Stilt villages were built in Lake Nokwe, 20km North of Cotonou by the Tofinu people who fled there to escape enslavement by the kings of Dahomey. Ganvie, the most famous of them, is a very large village made up of bamboo houses resting on teak stilts, perched above the water. The village is scattered and all journeys between houses are done in wooden boats on the waterways that separate them. When you are there it is not only the originality of the constructions that you admire – your attention is also drawn to the details of village life, such as the colourful floating market and the boats of chattering children heading off to school. The welcoming Tofinu are primarily fishermen and like to show off their fishing skills as well as the ovens, situated next to their homes, where the fish are dried. These smoked fish are taken and sold in the markets by the women. The villagers also benefit by selling their fine wooden carvings to visitors.
Abomey – Art & Legend
Our first port of call in Abomey is the Palace Museum where the kings of this brave and valiant people lived. The Palace has been restored and visitors enjoy a detailed guided tour viewing relics of recent Kings. We hear about the history of Dahomey, dating back to the end of the 16th century, the fearsome female Amazon warriors and the troubled reigns of Kings who led armies in never-ending wars as well as the splendors of their court, Dahomey’s tragic conflicts and troubles inspired some of William Shakespeare’s plays. The Palace also houses a huge range of Beninese art – samples of all the different kinds of art and craftwork are exhibited here: sculpted bas-reliefs, statues, furniture, thrones, sceptres, tapestries, embroidery, bronze and copper artefacts. To the North of Abomey the palm groves gradually fade away and bush country takes its place. This is an area covered in light forest, broken up by black hills. Interesting villages built amongst the large rounded blocks of rock perch on the slopes.
Castles of Clay
Following the Atakora mountain range , around Natitingou, we arrive in Somba country. This word describes a whole range of different people; the Tamberma, the Betammaribe, the Bessoribe, the Betiabe and the Wama. One thing they all have in common is the ‘tata’, this is the name of the dwellings in which they live. Tata are built in the shape of small castles and are several floors high. The definition of a man in Somba country is one who has completed many initiation rites and who owns his own traditional ‘tata’. These tata, are constructed of clay and thatch in the Atakora hills, enchanted and inspired by the great architect, Le Corbusier. Each of these houses are surrounded by cultivated fields of millet and sorghum. Centuries ago the people of these villages chose to take refuge in this territory, because it is not easily accessible so protecting them from slavery and outside influences which might interfere with their way of life. The beautiful, fine scarification on their faces and their bellies are the marks of the strict initiation rites into adulthood. The villagers still hunt with bows and arrows.
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TO KNOW MORE
The Republic of Benin is a country in West Africa. It borders Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. Its small southern coastline of 121 kilometres along the Bight of Benin is where most of the population is concentrated. The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo, but the seat of government is located in the country’s largest city of Cotonou. Benin is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture (cotton) and farming.
Area: 116,000 km²
Population: 9.6 million people.
Transport: One airport and one port both in Cotonou, two main asphalted roads, a railway system not taking passengers anymore since 2006.
Official language: French
Indigenous languages: Fon, Yoruba, Bariba.
Religions: The largest religious group is Roman Catholicism, followed closely by Muslims, Voodoo, animist religions and Protestants. The voodoo religion is officially recognized since 1998 and every 10th of January is the Voodoo national day celebrated everywhere in Benin.
Ethnic groups: South: Adja, originally from Togo/South-east and Center: Yoruba, originally from Nigeria/North-east: Bariba, originally from Nigeria/Others: Dendi (north-ouest), Fulani or Peul (North) and Bétamaribé (Atakora mountains).
Major political parties: Parti Social Démocrate (PSD), Renaissance du Benin (RB), Parti du Renouveau démocratique (PRD), Mouvement africain pour la démocratie et le progrès (MADEP), Force Cowrie for an Emerging Benin (FCBE)
President: In 2006, Thomas Boni Yayi won the second poll of the election with 74% of the votes. The president of Benin is the head of government, state, army and he also gets to nominate the members of his cabinet. After being postponed twice, new elections were held in Marsh 2011, won again by Yayi Boni with 53% of the votes but this time the opposition questioned their legitimacy.
GDP: 6.649 billion US $ (2010 est.)
Annual Growth Rate: 2.5%
Major agricultural products and industries: Cotton, corn, cassava, yams, beans, palm oil, peanuts, cashew, shea butter, livestock / textiles, food processing, construction materials, cement.
Natural resources: Unexploited deposits of marble, limestone and timber, small offshore oil deposits.
Export partners: India, China, Niger, Nigeria, Indonesia;
Import partners: France, China, USA, Malaysia, UK, Netherlands, India, and Thailand (foodstuffs, capital goods and petroleum products).
Benin economy is based on agriculture and services. Cotton is the main commercial crop. Its value fluctuates according to world prices which are very changing, and it faces competition from subsidised cotton growers in the USA and elsewhere. The other mainstay of the economy is re-exportation with neighbouring countries, particularly Nigeria. Much of this is informal and some believe that this trade could represent over 30% of GDP. It is estimated that 75% of importations into the port of Cotonou go to Nigeria. Benin suffers every time Nigeria decides to tighten its importation rules partly to stop the thriving smuggling of goods from Benin. The government relies on customs receipts for about half of its income. Nigerian trade policy is crucial to a healthy economy. A plan to privatise the state-owned cotton industry, the telecommunications, the public utility sectors and the port of Cotonou was presented by the government in July 2007.
Offshore oil exploration has started in a field near the border with Nigeria but it is not yet known if it contains exploitable reserves. In 2003, Benin benefited from around US $ 460 million in debt relief. In June 2010, The IMF approved a new three-year arrangement under the Extended Credit Facility (ECF) for about US $ 109 million. The new arrangement is designed to support the authorities’ program to increase economic growth by boosting investment in infrastructure and implementing structural reforms meant to increase Benin economic competitiveness.
An insufficient electrical supply continues to adversely affect Benin economic growth although the government has recently taken steps to increase the domestic power production.
EXTERNAL DEBT: $2.894 Billion (2009 est.)
Benin has dozens of daily and weekly newspapers, a government-owned TV channel, a handful of commercial TV channels as well as commercial and local radio stations.
The radio remains the main source of information especially in the rural areas as it is broadcasted in different local dialects.
The BBC World Service, Radio France Internationale and Gabon’s Africa N°1 are available on FM in Cotonou.
Benin was one of the first West African countries to have an internet connection. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimated that there were some 425,000 internet users by September 2006.
From the 17th century to the end of the 19th century, the land of current Benin was ruled by the Kingdom of Dahomey. Dahomey had a strong military culture and was famous for it. Dahomey was also famous for instituting an elite female soldier corps (female warriors trained to use the new Maritni-Henry rifles) known by many Europeans as the Dahomean Amazons.
The Portuguese were the first to settle on the coast in 1472 and they soon started slave-trading. The kingdom of Dahomey flourished from the slave trade as they sold war captives to European slave traders, reaching a peak under the kingship of Agadja at the beginning of the 18th century. That is why the area was known as the Slave-coast. This slave trade ended in 1885 when the last Portuguese slave ship departed from Ouidah to go to Brazil.
In 1892, with the slave trade banned and regional power diminishing, France took over the area, made it a colony and renamed it the French Dahomey.
On August 1st 1960, the Dahomey gained full independence from France thanks to Hubert Maga who became the first president, bringing in a democratic government for the next three years. The early years of independence were marked by a series of military coups between 1963 and 1970. In 1972, a new coup was organized by a northern man, the lieutenant Mathieu Kerekou, a soldier who had done his military service in the French army. When he took over power, it was the 9th government Benin knew in 12 years. By then, the administration was used to handle a chaotic government as the nation had been fighting without a clearly defined leader and in a state of permanent uncertainty for many years. The historical phase that followed was at last characterized by a certain level of stability which was not obvious as the scheme of one military coup every two years seemed meant to repeat itself (1973-1975-1977). Kerekou resisted each of those coups and claimed that the Dahomey had started a popular revolution and had thus become a Marxist-Leninist social government. That way, Benin consolidated its diplomatic relations with the Popular Republic of China, Libya and Northern Korea and even managed to get closer to the Soviet Union and its satellite states. In 1975, Kerekou changed the name Dahomey for Popular Republic of Benin. This new form of government led to a series of significant changes: schools were nationalised, the law system was entirely restructured and committees were created in rural areas in order to stimulate participation to the local governments. By 1982, the government was fully involved in a process of privatisation or in other words in the reorganization of an anti-producing and corrupted state society. In 1985, Kerekou asked the IMF to support a new policy as the economic difficulties had already forced the country to apply severe austerity measures and to inform the graduates that they were no longer guaranteed a job. Such decisions led to violent riots which also led to many arrests along with a strong suppression of demonstrations. In December 1989 riots erupted showing a degree of violence the country had not seen since the 1st coup of Mathieu Kerekou in 1972 with demonstrators asking for the president to resign, the adoption of a multiparty system and again the eradication of corruption so deeply polluting the entire system. Respectively, students and government workers were not getting their grants and pay checks anymore, absenteeism had reached a critical level and the whole country was plunged into a state of confusion and permanent discontent. It was in 1989 that an agreement was signed between France, the IMF and the World Bank to bring Kerekou down and to pay part of the due wages, in exchange for which France demanded the abolition of the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In 1990, a referendum gave total support to the multiparty Constitution and in 1991 new elections were held that Kerekou lost.
Human rights: Since a multiparty democracy returned in 1991, the respect of Human rights in Benin highly improved. Political parties are many, press is independent and dynamic, trade unions do have a significant power and the civilian society is flourishing. Around 500.000 NGOs are based in Benin, even including some human rights groups and they all work freely and with no intervention from the government. However, despite the fact that anti-corruption reforms and laws were implemented, this problem still weighs heavily on the country evolution.
Coast-line: Low-lying, sandy, coastal plain which is marshy and rich in lakes and lagoons communicating with the Ocean.
South: Low tropical forest covered in plateaus (from 20 to 200m high) and split by valleys running north to south along the Couffo, Zou, and Oueme Rivers.
Centre: Flat land with some rocky hills extending around Nikki and Save and rarely reaching more than 400 meters.
North: Area of an amazing natural beauty dominated by the only real chain of mountains in the country: the Atakora range which highest peak is called Mont Sokbaro and is 658 meters high.
Benin climate is hot and humid. Benin has two rainy and two dry seasons a year. The main rainy season is from April to late July, with a shorter less intense rainy period from late September to November. The main dry season is from December to April, with a short cooler dry season from late July to early September. Temperatures and humidity are high along the tropical coast. In Cotonou, the average maximum temperature is 31 °C and the minimum is 24 °C. Temperatures do not fluctuate much in the southern half of the country but the temperature difference can be more obvious in the north especially because of the Harmattan, a dry and chilly wind coming from the Sahel that blows from December to Marsh and cools down temperatures at night.
FAUNA AND FLORA
Most of the fauna is concentrated in the Pendjari and W National Parks. One can see antelopes, monkeys, warthog, buffalos, hippopotamus and more rarely lions, elephants and leopards.
The flora is interesting in the north where the most common trees are néré, shea, baobab, teak, silk-coton tree and cailcedrat.
source (http://www.who.int/gho/countries/ben.pdf) & CIA Fact books.
Total population: 59 years
Male: 58 years
Female: 61 years
0-14 years: 44.7%
15-64 years: 52.6%
65 and over: 2.7%
Median age: 17.4 years
Under 5 mortality rate: 121/1000 (more often from malaria, pneumonia or diarrhoea)
Birth attended by skilled health personne: urban areas: 78% – rural areas: 47%
Tuberculosis immunization: urban areas: 87% – rural areas: 79%
Prevalence of AIDS: Total of population: 1.2% (60.000 people)
Percentage of people who have access to drinkable water: about 60%
Access to improved sanitation facilities: urban areas: 21% – rural areas: 3%
1.5 physicians/10.000 inhabitants
9.5 nurses/10.000 inhabitants
source (http://www.poledakar.org/IMG/pdf/RESEN_benin_2008.pdf) & CIA Fact books.
Around 47% of the population is under 15 so education is a very important matter. The percentage of enrolment keeps on increasing every year but the remaining problem is that a large part of the children, around 66 out of 100, drop out school before reaching 6th grade. They do so for various reasons, the main ones being child labour, over-loaded classes, a low level of education due to the teachers’ lack of training and the difficulty to pay for the school fees and material.
Literacy rate: Total population: 34.7% (people who can read and write under 15 years)
Family standards of living is the greatest factor of discrimination, and it is also worth stressing that for 10 enrolled boys, only 8 girls will be. Access to education is also unequal according to the area where children live. The northern part has more problems of access and completion than the south-west more urban and developed. The government spends about 21% of the budget on education and the greatest part goes to primary education (53%).
There are about 3 million workers in Benin and the risk of poverty is much higher for uneducated children (around 17% against 48%). In the mean time, the production of human capital is not in phase with the needs of the national economy so the informal sector keeps on increasing as there are a lot more graduates than executive jobs available and not enough educated people in the promising branches such as agriculture/breeding/fishing/forest/transportation and communication. As a result, 17% are unemployed and 56% are underemployed.
Benin is filled with traditional music. Modern music mixes indigenous rhythms with Congolese sounds. In the 70s, the popular musical panorama in Benin was undermined because of a curfew imposed by the government but orchestras have always found a way to keep playing. Among them, the most famous ones are certainly the Poly Rytmo Orchestra, the Disc Afrique and the Astronautes. Without a doubt, the wonderful voice of Angélique Kidjo is the most successful African voice all over the world.