Benin - Facts and Factoids

  • Benin is a small, mostly rural country on Africa’s west coast. It derives its name from the large body of water at the southern end of the colony "the Bight of Benin."
  • The capital city of Benin is Porto-Novo, but the largest city is Cotonou, which is also home to the government.
  • The country is largely composed of young people - the median age is 17.9 years.
  • Like Togo, Benin is more tourist oriented than most of West Africa, with larger numbers of European visitors.  There are chic beachside restaurants and bars with some excellent food. The beaches are glorious and golden.
  • Like Togo, it’s also the home of voodoo. Read about that here.

Is Benin a Poor Country?

Benin has nearly 11 million people and around half live on less than a dollar a day, so it is among the world’s poorest countries. Unlike other West African countries, which export oil and cocoa, Benin's largest export is cotton. If the crop fails the results can be devastating. And cotton cultivation both leaches and takes over the land and makes life difficult for small landholders.

Who Colonised Benin?

Benin used to be called Dahomey. The Dahomey Kingdom was known for its culture and traditions. Young boys were often apprenticed to older soldiers, and taught the kingdom's military customs until they were old enough to join the army. There was also an elite female soldier corps, formed from the king’s wives and dubbed the Dahomean Amazons by many Europeans. The kings of Dahomey worked with mainly Portuguese merchants to establish the slave trade from the end of the eighteenth century until well into the nineteenth century. As the trade lessened and the power of the kings weakened the French took over the area in 1892, later including included the land called French Dahomey within the larger French West Africa colonial region. Independence was granted in 1960 as the Republic of Dahomey

Is it Easy to Enter Benin?

I had to obtain an e- visa authorisation online. The form filling was a little trying- not all the links worked, but I mangaed it in the end. I got immediate authorisation. This was readily accepted at the border with Togo, though there were the usual interminable logbook entries to endure.

What are the Highlights of Benin?

In Benin, I'm visiting:

Is Benin a Safe Country?

Despite being located in a turbulent region, Benin is among Africa’s most stable democracies.

I felt perfectly safe travelling in the coastal areas. Far more caution is suggested on the northern borders, where there have been terrorist raids of late. At the time of my travel the FCO advises against all travel to the areas bordering Niger and Burkina Faso

Then it’s off to the airport. My ticket says I’m to be there by 1 pm, but I’m not allowed in for over half an hour until it’s under two hours before the flight and then I’m still not allowed to wait near the check in desks when I ask where the ASKY desk is. I’m yelled at and forced to sit well away. It’s not at all friendly. Niger next. Or not. After half an hour of no action I steel myself to creep back to the check in area. I notice the information desk is now open, so I ask the girl sitting there when to check in. ‘But your flight’s been cancelled,’ she says. ’It's a holiday and ASKY have decided not to work today’. There’s no flight until Friday. And that only goes as far as Lomé.

Getting Out of Benin

Several messages with Gabriele and conversation about all my bad luck.  I express regret that I didn’t buy any amulets at the fetish market and ask if it’s too late. ‘Buy 100’, he replies.

So, I’m now in a car heading back to Lomé where I’m assured there is a plane to Niamey at lunchtime tomorrow. I will have driven the width of Togo four times. At least I get to spend another night in that lovely boutique hotel. I’m even going to have the same meal.

I have a stomach upset the next morning.

But the flight goes.

Modern day Togo and Benin are the joint homes of the Voodoo religion.

Voodoo Introduction

Voodoo is practised by about a fifth of the population, though rituals are enacted by many more, (Just in case Islam or Christianity don't work), and it is recognized as an official religion. The proper name is spelled Vodun (it means spirit in the Fon and Ewe languages), but it is also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) It is practised by the Fon people of Benin, and southern and central Togo (and areas of Ghana, and Nigeria.) West African voodoo is the main source of religions with similar names found in the Americas, especially in Haiti.

The Vodun religion centres around the ‘Vodun’ - spirits and other elements of divine essence which govern the Earth. They range from major deities to spirits inhabiting individual rivers, trees, and rocks etc. And people or groups of people. It also incorporates ancestor worship and the belief that the dead are still amongst us. There’s also ana thatched philosophy that often revolves around staying calm in the face of stress So it’s not dissimilar from many other religions, although the specifics of course are different. .
Patterns of Vodun worship follow various dialects, spirits, practices, songs, and rituals. There are stories and legends associated with various gods. The divine Creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is an elder woman, usually a mother, who is gentle and forgiving. She is the supreme god and her children (usually seven) have various divine attributes and responsibilities. Legba, the youngest son is often represented with a phallus.

Each family of spirits has its own female priesthood, sometimes hereditary, moving from mother to blood daughter. Everything is considered to contain the power of the divine. So herbal medicines are important and apparently mundane objects incorporated into rituals. Fetishes (from the Portuguese for wood) are Vodun talismans, objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts inhabited by spirits. Sometimes they are used in shrines to call forth specific Vodun and their associated powers.

It is the height of Voodoo celebration time, in Benin and Haiti, with the new year approaching. In addition, January 10 is the most important day on the Voodoo calendar, as it’s a Voodoo bank holiday, inaugurated by Nice Phoresego. He was a president of Benin who was healed by Voodoo after being very ill, when he first took up office. Voodoo is evident everywhere we travel, shrines and murals proliferate. Red white and blue flags (air earth and fire) indicate that a priest is open for business. White flags on their own indicate a place where you may make a wish. Though you are expected to promise something (a goat or cow maybe), when the wish comes true and there will be big problems if you don’t pay your dues.

Lomé Fetish Market

I've flown in from Abidjan in Cote D'ivoire. We visit the Akodessawa Fetish Market in Lomé, before venturing along the coast of Togo, to see the Voodoo villages. Chinese markets are nothing on this. Just about every African animal in Africa is here dried or mummified: leopard skins, a lion’s head and paws, snakes bones and skin, baboons, lizards, bats, assorted birds, chameleon, hedgehogs and so on.  My fetish guide, Mark, explains it all and then takes me to the priest, in a shrine, where I’m offered amulets to protect me while I’m travelling: for love, for business, for good health. It’s not a hard sell. I think Mark can tell by my face that I’m not up for making a purchase. The priest on duty here looks to be about nine and requests ‘un cadeaux’, as soon as the guide leaves us alone.

Voodoo in the Villages of Togo

We’re hugging Lake Togo, which narrows to a sandy river estuary and a small harbour, with a line of graceful beautifully painted pirogues. Noah says that they don’t fish on Tuesdays as that’s fish breeding day and the process shouldn’t be watched. And we’re almost at the Benin border (53 kilometres away), before we turn off. Voodoo villages are interspersed with churches along the road, where the Portuguese bargained over the land. Voodoo temples and churches frequently face each other.

 There are numerous symbolic murals and the villages are guarded by leghbeh - specially decorated shrines. The statues or mounds inside (fetishes) have just discernible human features, covered with wax, powder and sundry other offerings; there are often traces of blood.. Dead people are represented by mud mounds, along village walls, with shells for features. A wooden peg is added for males. Each village also has numerous shrines (often one per house) in specially dedicated annexes. Calabash gourds abound. They are considered to be lucky, so are repaired if they break. Brides often keep one for each year of their marriage, hung in the bedroom. 

The main object of interest, at our first visit, is the Voodoo Hospital, presided over by priestesses. Wearing a white headscarf indicates that you are a priestess and know how to communicate properly with the shrine. You tell the priestess you have a problem, no details, and give them an object associated with you, for example hair or clothing. They take this and the nature of the illness will be revealed in a dream. The ladies then go out into the bush and search for the correct remedies. A ritual may also be necessary.

Voodoo Village Ceremony

The whole village is participating in a thanksgiving Voodoo ceremony, at the next stop. A cute little goat is tethered to a post outside the ceremonial arena with some fetishes alongside. I don’t realise for some time why it’s there. There is dancing to the rhythm of the drums - and several participants appear to fall into a trance becoming stiff and glassy eyed. This is a good omen.

Then the goat and a chicken are slaughtered. In deference to my sensibilities - thankfully - this takes place in a side room. The carcasses are then borne around the dance floor, around the neck of those in a trance. At times, they suck the blood and carry them in their teeth instead. The blood is also daubed on the sacred drums, which are only used for these ceremonies. Eventually, the bodies are borne away to the kitchen. It’s possibly the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen.

I'm forced to join in with the dancing. apparently it's rude not to....everyone claps.

Twins and Voodoo

Back along the coast to Benin. Lomé is right on the border with Ghana, so I’ve travelled the width of the country three times in 24 hours. Our first village in Benin has a shrine dedicated to twins. Twins are considered to be one person and very important. You never say a twin is dead – they are away visiting or carrying out some errand. They are remembered by placing identical dolls on display.  The scarification marks on the face are the key identification feature here. In this house, one mother has triplets, even more significant.

Benin Voodoo Dancing

Then I’m quickly watching a New Year ceremony. Here, anyone who has transgressed is identified by the mask, who knows without having to be told. It’s called a mask dance, but the raffia streamer covered shrouds are big enough to envelop the whole body. I say big enough. There is purportedly no one inside the masks. There are four of them entering at different times, whirling like Sufi dervishes to the drumbeats whilst a group of villagers dance in a circle alongside. I wish I could move like that.

The masks are sprinkled with powders and fed alcohol, and each has a separate denouement, where it is tipped over to reveal nothing underneath initially. At subsequent reveals, statues with moving parts, generally phallic, a low table laid with food and a heap of metallic raffia which grows into a tall wiggling tower - another fertility symbol under different masks. Noah insists it’s all mystic and that just the priests (only males allowed to be initiated) are privy to the secrets of how this is done. I expect David Copperfield would work it out. Again, it’s astonishing and fortunately I’m not singled out by the dancers.

I’m still with guide Noah and driver Kofi, who have driven me from Togo. Lunch at a beach restaurant, at Grand Popo. The Portuguese named the town this, because it means big backside and refers to the local women. There’s another area called Petit Popo.

The Python Temple of Ouidah

To Ouidah, the centre of Voodoo. First, the python temple where 50 (thankfully small) royal pythons reside, entwined together in a heap inside a concrete shrine. Unlike in most parts of the world, snakes in Benin are revered, particularly the Royal pythons. They even eat and sleep in people homes. They are believed to be ancestors of the local people, whose facial scarification reflects snake bite marks. (Incidentally, Noah tells me that scarification began to prevent kidnapping of babies a bit like cattle branding and it’s not solely for tribal identity purposes.) It’s thought to be lucky if you touch the pythons. Their skin is dry and warm.

Telling Your Fortune, the Voodoo Way

Another village ceremony, in Ouidah, is a cross between fortune telling for the year ahead and a pantomime. The costumes are lavish and sequinned and there is much spinning and cavorting, whilst the villagers are threatened with a beating from wooden brooms. The figures engage in mock battles and sometimes end up prostrate on the ground. They are corralled by young men with sticks. The women and children watch in a group in front of the houses, scrambling through the windows to evade the whistling wood. The final figure to emerge brings blessings and lays his long hairy brush on people’s heads. He tells me (my translator says) that I’m going to have an excellent year. Everything I hope for will come true and I will find a husband. The brush is tickly.

Next, the Slave Coast at Ouidah.

Haiti

Haiti is very much what one is led to expect and more. It’s full of bustle and hassle, very vibrant and filthy. There are heaps of garbage lining the roads and the streams and culverts resemble plastic glaciers. And there's been an earthquake in 2010, which affected the country catastrophically, with many buildings damaged or destroyed. Haiti's government estimated the death toll to be 230,000. Much remains in a state of disrepair.

There are six of us on our Haiti tour. A very much retired married couple who have already been everywhere, two married (of course) Mancunian men and a lady from California who has also already been everywhere. They all seem relatively normal and good company. I've flown in from the Bahamas, via Miami.

Facts and Factoids

  • In French, Haiti's nickname is La Perle des Antilles (Pearl of the Antilles) because of both its natural beauty and the amount of wealth it accumulated for the Kingdom of France. But Cuba also bears the same nickname. Take your pick.
  • Haiti is the western 'half' (it's actually three-eighths) of the island of Hispaniola (The Spanish Isle). It's in the Antilles chain, which is bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the south and west, the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and east.
  • Haiti carries the unenviable title of poorest country in the western hemisphere and illiteracy runs at 50%. Not many can afford school, which is ostensibly free, but isn’t, as there are nowhere near enough government schools. Even foreign aid for education is taxed.
  • This is also the most populous country in the Caribbean - with an estimated population of 11.4 million.
  • Most Haitians practise a religion that is a blend of Voodoo and Roman Catholicism - covering all bases as it were.

Port au Prince, the Capital of Haiti

The city of Port-au-Prince grew up on the Gulf of Gonâve which is a natural harbour, making it very inviting to the French colonists. The surrounding hills create an amphitheatre with the ever expanding city spilling down into the water. commercial districts are near the sea, while residential neighborhoods are located on the hills above, giving way to spreading slums. Nearly half of the country's population lives here. The roads are congested, none of the traffic lights work and everything is coated in dust. Every other building is still under construction or has been left crumbling in the aftermath of the earthquake. This includes the famous gingerbread houses with their pointy gables. ornate decoration and latticework

Hotel Oloffson

We have lunch at the famous Hotel Oloffson, built in the same latticed brown wood sprinkled with white style. It manifested as the fictional Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene's The Comedians. There’s a room with a plaque on it. to commemorate where he stayed. (Along with an eclectic mix of others like Barry Goldwater and Jean Claude Van Damme.)

Street Demonstrations Imminent - According to the Media

The international press yesterday was full of stories about violent street demonstrations in Port au Prince, over the impending elections, which are said to be rigged. We haven’t seen any violence, just beaucoup de traffique. And our tour leaders haven’t mentioned it either!

The Iron Market and Voodoo

The slow traffic has its compensations as the streets are teeming with street stalls and locals going about their business. There are highly decorated buses called tap taps (as you tap to get them to stop). The vast and lively Iron Market sprawls over acres, with huge amounts of space devoted to Voodoo. Most of it is bottles of potions of every size and hue and heaps of herbs. But there are also aisles crammed with statues, dolls and other sculpted items, mainly made out of real skulls, teeth and hair. Macabre is the best word for it. Most of the people believe in spirits and say that many were released during the earthquake.  I just hope they don’t return to inhabit my dreams

Haitian Voodoo

  • Voodoo, or Vodou, developed among Afro-Haitian slave communities during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
  • In essence, it is a blend of the traditional religions brought from West and Central Africa, with the Roman Catholicism ( and to a lesser extent Freemasonry) of their French colonial masters. Spirits, or Iwa, which were worshipped have been associated with Roman Catholic saints and their saint days.
  • Services and rituals involve song, drumming, dance, prayer, possession, and animal sacrifice and are designed to bring about change.
  • After the Revolution, with the French thrown out, Vodou become Haiti's dominant religion.
  • In the twentieth century, increased emigration spread Vodou abroad.
  • Read more about African Voodoo here.

Jacmel - A Town in Haiti With Potential

Down south to Jacmel, which would be a pretty town with painted French colonial houses, but it is still being restored. The architecture was so highly thought of that it inspired the French Quarter of New Orleans. it was hit first by a huge fire in 1896 and rebuilt. It was then hit particularly badly by the earthquake, leaving much of it in ruins.  Like a phoenix, it is rising again and remains hopefully, on the tentative UNESCO list.

There is an esplanade of sorts and a sweep of sand. But the beach is heaped with debris, mainly plastic bottles and is not remotely inviting.

We're taken on an expedition to Bassin Bleu. Guarded by imposing rock formations, this series of four stunning cobalt pools linked by waterfalls. This is a much better option for swimming. though the drive involves fording a river (also used as a car wash) followed by a tortuous scramble over rocks

Street Demonstrations In Reality

Back in Port au Prince, our leader (a charismatic young man with cascading dreadlocks called Sean Rubens Jean Sacra, Serge for short) has now had to concede that something might be going on. The hotel guards won’t allow us out of the hotel on our own and there are lot of folk standing around with AK47s. There are either a lot of firework displays going on or there are gunshots in the back ground.

A Brief History of Haiti

  • The island of Hispaniola was originally inhabited by the Taíno people and Europeans arrived in 1492, with Christopher Columbus' first voyage. Columbus founded the first European settlement in the Americas, La Navidad, on what is now the north-eastern coast of Haiti. Spain ceded the west of Hispaniola to France in 1697, when it was named Saint-Domingue. The colonists established sugarcane plantations, brought slaves for Africa to work them and made the colony one of the world's richest.
  • In 1791, a former slave and general of the French Army, Toussaint Louverture took advantage of the French Revolution, to launched the Haitian Revolution. Napoleon's forces were defeated by Louverture's successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (later Emperor Jacques I), who declared Haiti's sovereignty on 1 January 1804. The French were massacred and Haiti became the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the first country in the Americas to eliminate slavery, and only country established by a slave revolt
  • Government after the revolution was fragmented. The nation was divided and united by short-lived emperors and generals. They even invaded the neighbouring Dominican Republic at one point, to try to unify the whole island. A more workable constitution was introduced under Michel Domingue in 1874, but disruption continued. The USA occupied the country between 1915 and 1934.
  • Probably the most famous of the rulers was François Duvalier (Papa Doc), followed by his son (Baby Doc.). This regime (1957-1986) is regarded as one of the most repressive and corrupt of modern times. He is perhaps most famous for his secret police force. They were after the Haitian mythological bogeyman, Tonton Macoute (Uncle Gunnysack), who kidnaps and punishes unruly children by snaring them in a gunny sack (macoute) before carrying them off to be consumed for breakfast. The Macoute were known for their brutality, state terrorism, and assassinations. Papa Doc was notoriously unstable (even mad) and paranoid. He once made a ruling that all black dogs were to be butchered as he believed that one of his rivals had been reincarnated as a black dog.
  • All of this explains the poverty. Since 1986, Haiti has established a relatively more democratic political system.

The Citadelle Laferrière

Saturday and a flight to Cap Haitian in the north, over the mountains. This is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean. All seems quiet, but the route to the airport is very carefully planned. The pilot of our 18 seater plane (I'm sure he’s wearing his gardening clothes) kindly flies us over our goal: The Citadelle. It was commissioned by Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe, (King Henry I) and built by tens of thousands of former slaves, to keep the French out, after they had won their independence. Prior to the conflict the colony of Haiti, settled by the French was extremely prosperous, with cotton and sugar grown by a third of the Atlantic slave trade.

It lives up to its billing. It’s the largest fortress in the western hemisphere and a great monument to courage and endurance. Including several smaller forts across the country, the stronghold remains the only African-derived military fortification in the New World. It is truly immense. The journey up the mountain to see it close up is overly exciting, as we go on horseback and my mount is a little twitchy. The handler’s constant use of a makeshift crop doesn’t help. The mountain views are stupendous.

The fortress was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1982 - along with the Sans-Souci Palace (King Henry's home) at the bottom of the slope. It includes a pointy domed cathedral - the Milot and it's all stupendous too.

Cap Haitien

Cap Haitien was once nicknamed the Paris of the Antilles, because of its wealth and sophistication, expressed through its architecture and artistic life. It was an important city during the colonial period, when it was the capital of the French Colony of Saint-Domingue from the city's formal foundation in 1711 until 1770, when the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince. After the Haitian Revolution, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Haiti under King Henri I until 1820.

Cap Haitian is purported to have a very good beach half an hour to the east and I'm aching to see white Caribbean sand in Haiti. There has been little evidence of it so far. However, they are having their first rain here since September and it’s barrelling down. It’s too wet to go out and in any case Serge has forbidden us to walk further than five blocks. The UN are out en bloc (tanks, road blocks, full riot gear) as the protests are persisting, even though they have postponed the election. The country is becoming increasingly unstable.

Incarceration

The hotel is picturesque; traditional with antique furniture and the former home of one of the rebel leaders. There are the usual older style hotel problems and the biggest mosquitoes you can imagine, lurking in every corner. The manager is pursuing them with some sort of electric tennis racket. That provides the entertainment. We can also see some rioters peeping through the window grating. There was a carnival planned for today and some of the Rara bands have infiltrated the protest, so it’s chanting accompanied by bamboo horns and drums. It’s certainly a different way to spend a holiday.

Port au Prince Cemetery

A final couple of days in Port au Prince. No more fireworks, but still beaucoup de traffique. A trip to the cemetery to see the du Valier tombs (Pap Doc’s body was pilfered after the earthquake opened it) and some Voodoo ceremonies. These involve much smoke and a man in a football shirt.

Pétion-Ville

A drive through the colourful suburbs of Port au Prince sprawling up the hillsides. This is Jalousie, the City in the Sky. Its been spruced up and painted rainbow colours by the government, in order to tempt the homeless to settle in less appealing neighbourhoods.

A meal in, east and up the northern hills of the Massif de la Selle, upmarket Pétion-Ville, is a pleasant way to wind up. This commune was founded in 1831, by president Jean-Pierre Boyer and named after Alexandre Sabès Pétion), a Haitian general who was one of the country's founding fathers. This is the area where diplomats, foreign merchants and wealthy people reside. (There are still shantytowns on the outer edges, even here, as poor locals migrate upwards, in search of job opportunities.

Art galleries, chic cafes, twinkling lights and white table cloths. There is a good life in Haiti - for those who can afford it.

Next stop, Turks and Caicos

Newsletter Subscription

Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.

I keep your data private and only share your data with third parties that make this service possible. Privacy Policy. No spam I promise. Unsubscribe any time.