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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.
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The Portuguese arrived in Benin's territory in the fifteenth century, and established significant trading posts in Benin's coastal areas. Soon following the Portuguese came French, Dutch, and British traders. Over time, Benin's coast developed into the largest center of the slave trade in Africa, run by the Fon people, who dominated the Dahomey government and actively sold their neighboring peoples to the Europeans. As the slave trade increased in volume (10,000–20,000 slaves shipped off per day), the coast of Benin became known as the Slave Coast. Around this time, the port cities of Porto-Novo and Ouida were founded and quickly became the largest and most commercially active cities in the country, while Abomey became the Dahomey capital.
The fall of the Dahomey Kingom was precipitated by the banning of slavery throughout Europe in the mid-19th century, followed by the French annexation of the territory under colonial rule. Much of the Dahomey leadership broke even in the annexation, being appointed to top government posts throughout all the French colonies in West Africa. In 1960, Dahomey gained its independence, under the name République du Dahomey, which set off a long and destabilizing series of coups. In the course of just one decade, 1960—1972, the government changed hands nine times, and experienced four violent coups.
In 1972, Major Mathieu Kérékou, a staunch Marxist, organized the fourth of the military coups, and renamed the country the People's Republic of Benin. Kérékou's regime proved more successful at maintaining power, and reorganized the country on his interpretation of the Maoist model. In 1989, the French government, in exchange for financial support of Benin's flailing economy, persuaded the Benin government to abandon its one-party Socialist rule, and to move to a multiparty republic. In 1990, the country was renamed the Republic of Benin, and in 1991, Benin held its first free elections with significant success, and Kereku lost to Nicephore Soglo—Benin was thus the first African nation to successfully coordinate a peaceful transfer of power from a dictatorship to a functioning democracy. Soglo remained president through 1996, but his administration was marred by poor economic performance, leading to his electoral defeat to Mathieu Kérékou in 1996, who ruled the country and maintained popularity despite corruption scandals until 2006. The current president of Benin is today Yayi Boni, a technocrat who served under the tutelage of former President Soglo.
Today, Benin remains as an extremely poor country, suffering from poverty and corruption. Infrastructure remains very poor in condition, and the struggling economy is recovering after decades of political unrest.
The equatorial south of Benin experiences two rainy seasons of the year, from April to mid July and from mid-September through the end of October. The rainy period in the subequatorial north runs from March until October. The best time of the year to visit the country is from November to February, when the temperature moderates, and the weather is dry with low humidity.
Benin, compared to its neighbours, is geographically smaller, being 112,620km² or a similar size to Honduras or the US state of Ohio. The country is basically divided into five geographic zones, from south to north: the Coastal plain, the plateau, the elevated plateau and savannah, hills in the northwest, and fertile plains in the north.
In every city/village one will find street vendors selling anything from beans and rice to grilled chicken, goat and/or turkey. Prices are nominal. But one must be careful, always choose a vendor whose food is still hot, and they have taken care to keep the bowls covered with a lid and/or cloth.
- Boulets de Poulet avec Sauce Rough (Chicken Meatballs with Red Sauce)
The beer is cheap and good! Local pubs (buvettes) are on every corner in every neighborhood. You can get a bottle of local beer "La Béninoise", Heineken, Guinness, Castel and others depending on the bar. They all cost about 250 CFA for a small bottle or 500 CFA for a large bottle. In the nightclubs beer is excessively expensive, like 30000 CFA a bottle! So stick to the local pubs, or avoid buying beer at the nightclub. There is also the local vin de palme (palm wine), an alcoholic beverage that is made from from sap of the palm tree. A fermented palm liquor (Sodabi) is also available, it costs about 2000 CFA for a liter and it is VERY strong stuff.
The West African CFA franc (XOF) is used by Benin. It is also used by Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sénégal and Togo. While strictly a separate currency from the Central African CFA franc (XAF), the two currencies are used interchangeably at par throughout all CFA franc (XAF & XOF) using countries.
Both CFA francs are guaranteed by the French treasury and are pegged to the euro at €1 = 655.957 CFA francs.
There are banks in all the major cities, and most of the banks have cash machines. Keep in mind that many businesses and offices, including banks, close for several hours in the middle of the day.
Prices for goods purchased in a store, restaurant, hotel, bus tickets, etc. are non-negotiable, but almost everything else is. Depending on the item, it's not uncommon for foreigners to be quoted a price that is double the final purchase price.
One can find any type of African commodity all over Benin.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Benin on Wikivoyage.
Cities in Benin
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Cotonou is the largest city in Benin and the country's primary port of entry for visitors. The city is located in the south of the country, on the coastline.
- Cotonou Central Mosque
- Cotonou Cathedral
- Fidjrosse Beach
- Artisanal Center
Points of Interest in Benin
Benin is perhaps best known to the world as the birthplace of the Vodun religion—voodoo. Voodoo temples, roadside fetishes, and fetish markets are found throughout the country, but the best known is the skull and skin-filled fetish market in the Grande Marche du Dantopka—Cotonou's overwhelmingly busy, enormous, and hectic grand market. The most important fetish in the country is the monstruous Dankoli fetish, on the northerly road near Savalou, which is a pretty good spot for beseeching gods.
Benin under the rule of the Dahomey kings was a major center of the slave trade, and the Route des Esclaves in Ouidah, terminating at the beachside Point of No Return monument is a memorial to those who were kidnapped, sold, and sent off to the other side of the world. Ouidah's local museum, housed in a Portuguese fort, unsurprisingly focuses on the slave trade, in addition to other facets of local culture, religion, and history, and is a real must see for anyone passing through the country.
Abomey was the capital of the Dahomey Empire, and its ruined temples and royal palaces, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, are one of the country's top attractions. The ruins, their bas-reliefs, and the Abomey Historical Museum in the royal palace (which contains all sorts of macabre tapestries and even a throne of human skulls) are a testament to the wealth brought to the Dahomey kings from the slave trade, and brutality with which they oppressed their enemies, fodder for human sacrifice and bondage.
Ganvie, home to 30,000 whose ancestors fled the brutal Dahomey kings by building their town on stilts right in the center of Lake Nokoué, is without question a fascinating and naturally beautiful locale, and a popular stop as one of the largest of West Africa's lake towns. But it has been to an extent ruined by the unpleasant relationship between locals and tourism. (Ghana may have much more rewarding experiences for travelers interested in West African lake towns.)
While manic Cotonou is the country's largest city and economic center, Porto Novo, the capital, is small and one of West Africa's more pleasant capitals. Most of the country's major museums are located here amidst the crumbling architectural legacy of French colonial rule. Grand Popo is the other popular city for tourists to relax, but not for the city itself as much as the beaches.
In the north, you'll find a very different sort of Benin from the mostly crowded, polluted cities of the south, of which Cotonou is such a prominent example. Pendjari National Park and W National Park (which Benin shares with Burkina Faso and Niger), is considered West Africa's best for wildlife viewing, and are set in beautiful, hilly highlands.
The unique and eccentric mud and clay tower-houses, known as tata, of the Somba people in the north, west of Djougou near the Togolese border, are a little-known extension into Benin of the types of dwellings used by the Batammariba people of Togo just west. Virtually all tourists to this area flock to the UNESCO-designated Koutammakou Valley across the border; the Benin side has the advantage of being even off the beaten path.
Cotonou Central Mosque - Cotonou
Da Silva Museum - Porto-Novo
Grand Popo Beach - Grand Popo
Royal Palaces of Abomey - Abomey
Cotonou Cathedral - Cotonou
Fidjrosse Beach - Cotonou