the Republic of Benin known as Dahomey gained independence from France in 1960 as a colony of French. It was divided between two coastal kingdoms of Dahomey and Porto-Novo and a large area of various tribes in the North of the country. The French assembled these various groups together into the colony of French Dahomey, which was part of the various colonies of French West Africa from 1904 until 1960. In the independence era, the republic was extremely unstable for the first decade and a half of existence amid military coups. In 1972, Mathieu Kérékou led a military coup deposing the Presidential Council and appointing himself as the Head of State, a position he held until 1991 when the country returned to multi-party elections.
The history and culture of the country is replete with rich antecedents and cultural affinity with the French and Yoruba in Nigeria. Just as some people refer to Benin as the former Kingdom of Dahomey, others see it as the home country of Toussaint Louverture, founder of modern day Haiti and/or of Amélé Uguette TOGNIZOUN, the recently crowned Miss Tourism World Africa 2019. Benin is also a reference because of Ganvié, its unique and sustainable stilt village that many people call the Venice of Africa and its international open market called Dantokpa which is the biggest in West Africa. Another national pride is the Zinsou Foundation which is the first African contemporary art museum of Africa.
Benin is a beautiful country in which you will find a large amount of palace ruins and temples dating back to the period of the Kingdom of Dahomey (1600-1900). The kingdom was well known for its powerful and fearful armies and amazons who would instigate slave raids and attack territories larger than their own. The kingdom ended under French occupation around 1900.
Even though the Republic of Benin is a small West African country, it attracts every year many tourists who are adventurous of discovering this former French colony. With a population of 11 million people, Benin is bounded on the West by Togo, Nigeria to the East, Niger and Burkina Faso to the North. On the south coast is the Gulf of Guinea.
Benin’s political capital is Porto Novo but Cotonou is Benin’s main port and economic hub, accounting for almost half the country’s tax. It handles Benin’s overseas business and sells itself as a transit port for neighbouring Nigeria and hinterland countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso.
Since the end of its Marxist-Lenin regime in 1989, Benin has been an exemplary democracy in sub- Saharan Africa. Benin is also one of the most stable and secure countries in West Africa. Its solid institutions make it a model of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa and in the world with the country ensuring a series of peaceful electoral transitions since 1991.
If there is a country that offers, in a short time, all that Africa can offer in terms of tourism, it is Benin. Natural and magnificent landscape, diversified fauna and flora, varied sites and infrastructures. Lagoons and beaches are lined with coconut trees in the south, gentle hills planted with wooded savannah in the centre and arid mountains in the North.
The Pendjari National Park is well worth a visit for its exceptional wildlife. Situated in the northwest of Benin, this park is the largest remaining intact ecosystem in West Africa. Its expansive landscape contains important wetlands critical for wild species such as cheetahs, buffalos, baboons, lions, elephants, hippopotamus, antelopes, warthogs, crocodiles, wild birds, etc. There are more than 460 bird species in the park. What a delight for bird watchers! One cannot miss the Tanougou Waterfalls that offer lovely natural pools excellent for swimming.
Benin’s richness is especially its immense cultural heritage and varied traditions. All year long festivals and traditional celebrations are organized throughout the country. Fête du Vodun, Festival Danxomè, Festival Guèlèdè, Festival Gaani, Nonvitcha, Fête de l’Igname, Festival Yê, Festival Yêkê-Yêkê are various opportunities to learn more about the amazing traditional beliefs, religious heritage and cultural identity of the Beninese people.
Benin is the birthplace or cradle of Voodoo, a religion with a hierarchy of deities and tribal nature spirits embracing magical practices and healing remedies considered divine. It originated all the voodoo cults which appeared in the Caribbean Islands, Latin America and the New Orleans. It is an important part of the ordinary life of a Beninoise and therefore a facet of the country. Several religions are practiced in Benin. Animism is widespread and its practices vary from one ethnic group to the other. Arab merchants introduced Islam while European missionaries brought Christianity. Many individuals who identify themselves as Christian or Muslim also practice the Voodoo religion.
For many travelers who choose to visit this country, it is a kind of pilgrimage or quest for one’s roots because Benin was marked by slave trade during which millions were deported from its shores.
Well before colonial presence, Benin inherited a dense and tumultuous history that can be discovered by touring towns such as Abomey, Ganvié, Ouidah and Porto Novo which are all situated in the South.
Abomey was the centre and the former capital of the great Kingdom of Dahomey which has left an indelible mark in the annals of the country. Its main attractions include the statue of King Béhanzin, royal palaces, an underground village and the Historical Museum of Abomey which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The statue of King Béhanzin stands in a park at the entrance of Abomey. He is known for being one of the last to resist to French colonization. His great love for the freedom of his country, culture, and people led him to courageously and fiercely defend the land of his ancestors. Not wanting his people to be massacred, he finally surrendered himself to the French and was deported to Martinique then to Algeria where he died in 1906. In 1920, his son, Ouanilo would become the first African lawyer at the Paris Bar.
The royal palaces of Abomey are a unique reminder of the powerful kingdom where the monarchs ruled Dahomey. These royal palaces were built by successive kings of the Dahomey Kingdom. The Dahomey kings, who were believed to be descended from panthers, were not just absolute monarchs, but also figures of great religious significance. Abomey and its palaces were the cultural heart of the kingdom.
The Kingdom of Dahomey was also renowned for its military prowess and especially for its female warriors called Amazons who formed the elite of the Dahomey army. Brave and skillful these amazons ensured the protection of the king and guard the royal palace. They would also go to war to fight for the expansion of Dahomey.
Agongouinto is an underground village with shelters that mainly served as a refuge for Dahomey warriors. The warriors hid there to let their attackers pass before surprising them. Located about 10 metres underground, these cellars were arranged in the light of precise plans to also serve as dwelling (living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, wells, etc …) to warriors.
The Historical Museum of Abomey illustrates the history of the Kingdom of Dahomey, the lifestyle of the Fon people and their desire for independence, resistance and fight against colonial occupation. A tour in the museum takes visitors through the palaces of King Ghézo and King Glèlè in which the museum is housed.
Ganvié is a village of roughly 33,000 people that stands on stilts in the middle of Lake Nokoué. The founders of the village fled there to avoid Fon warriors. At the time, the powerful West-African Fon tribe was hunting and selling other native tribesman to the Portuguese. Fon religious practice forbade their raiders from advancing on any people dwelling on water. This explains how the Ganvié Lake Village came to be.
During a tour, visitors learn how the Ganvié people were helped out by a crocodile. They will discover the everyday life of Ganvié people through barber shops, boutiques, NGOs, churches, schools, hotels, hospitals, etc… The people of Ganvié have succeeded in setting up a self-sustainable community that live on fishing (eating and selling) and various other means such as tourism, restaurants and souvenir shops. The fish farms and floating market are a must see! The villagers of Ganvié travel almost exclusively by boat, and the few domesticated land-animals they maintain live on plots of grass that spring up from the water.
Established under the Xwéda Kingdom, Ouidah is best known for the major role it played during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as one of the most active ports in Africa as far as slave trade is concerned.
Ouidah is also the world’s voodoo capital and on January 10 every year people come from all over the world to take part in the biggest voodoo festival held anywhere on earth. Although celebrations take place in other towns such as Allada, Grand – Popo and Porto – Novo, the main event is held in Ouidah. In 1992, Ouidah held the first international festival dedicated to the art and culture of Voodoo. Those who visit Ouidah during this period have the opportunity to meet His Excellency Dada Dagbo Hounon Hounan II, the Supreme Voodoo Chief.
The attractions that people visit Ouidah for are: the Sacred Forest of Kpassè Zoun, Temple of Pythons, Ouidah Museum of History and Slave Route.
The Sacred Forest of Kpassè Zoun is dominated by huge ancient trees, accompanied by sculptures and woodcarvings representing Voodoo deities. Inside the forest, visitors learn more about the voodoo religion and discover the large Iroko tree into which King Kpassè, founder of Ouidah, turned to escape enemies from the Kingdom of Dahomey. Some parts of the forest are used during voodoo ceremonies by voodoo priests and initiates. These parts remain closed to the public.
The Temple of Pythons is the home to royal pythons which have been protected and honored in Ouidah for centuries now. The temple is maintained by the priests of Dangbé, and dozens of the sacred python are housed within. A sacred python draped around one’s neck is thousands of blessings!!! A 600 year old iroko tree and a 200 year old jar used to purify the town every 7 years can also be found in the temple. The day to day relationship between the people of Ouidah and the royal pythons is amazing! For the people of Ouidah, finding a python in their house is a blessing! When the pythons go out of the temple to feed themselves on chicks and/or rats, those who do not return are found by the population and taken back to the temple.
The Ouidah Museum of History contains a wealth of objects and illustrations of historic and cultural significance, which together gives the visitor an intimate understanding of the region’s past. The museum is located within the compound of the former Portuguese Fort in Ouidah.
Beginning with artifacts from the former Portuguese Fort, the collections proceed to describe through objects, imagery, and artifacts the history of the Kingdom of Xwéda and Kingdom of Dahomey, both of which were dependent on the trade in enslaved individuals with Europeans for riches and power. Photos and artifacts portray the impact that people from Benin made on the cultures of New World societies, as well as the effects of mass repatriation to Benin after the decline of the slave trade. Finally, local religious tradition is characterized through many current religious items and photos from local ceremonies.
The Slave Route is a 4 km road between the Ouidah Museum of History and the beach. It is probably the same road thousands of slaves traveled on their way to board the slaving ships for the New World. Along the road are large painted concrete statues depicting Voodoo symbols. Notable stops along the Slave Route include: the Slave Auction, Tree of Forgetfulness, Tree of Return, Zomaï Cabin, Memorial of Remembrance, Zoungbodji and the Point-of-No Return.
The Slave Auction was where various European powers selected and purchased slaves destined for resale in the new world.
Slaves were branded according to the mark of the purchaser at the Tree of Forgetfulness. The name of the place, however, stems from the ritual of turning slaves around the tree to reinforce forgetfulness of their homes. Men were walked around the tree 9 times, and women 7 times.
The Tree of Return was planted by King Agadja of Dahomey. It was marking the point of last goodbyes. By turning three times around the tree, slaves could ensure that their spirits would return to their homeland after death.
The Zomaï Cabin was an obscure hut where the slaves were held prior to departure. The meaning of “zomaï” is where the light does not go. The close quarters within the cabin habituated the slaves to the conditions they would face on board the slave ships.
Also called the Wall of Lamentations, the Memorial of Remembrance is 6 meters tall and the imagery displayed on it tells the history of slavery in Benin. The wall was erected on the site of a mass grave for slaves who died before leaving Africa.
Zoungbodji was the first customs point where the movement of slaves was controlled, and the last point where the slaves saw the land of Africa.
From the Ouidah beach, the slaves were loaded onto long boats and taken to large slaving vessels. On the beach today there is a remarkable monument to the slave trade erected by UNESCO known as the Point of No Return.
PORTO – NOVO
During the 17th century, a Portuguese explorer called Eucharistus de Campos discovered this small town which looked like another town in Portugal called Porto. He decided to name the place Porto -Novo, which was formally called Ajacè or Hogbonou.
In 1863, the first French Protectorate was established with the King Toffa, King of Hogbonou who was seeking help against the claims of the Kingdom of Dahomey and the attacks of the English based in Lagos, Nigeria.
Porto Novo was the town where former colonial governors stayed before independence. Their office shelters today the Benin National Assembly where 83 Members of Parliament enact laws and control government activities.
Porto Novo is the administrative and political capital of Benin. Though the government and most of its activities were moved to Cotonou, Porto – Novo is still the official capital of Benin. The kingdom of Hogbonou is one of the oldest in Africa.
Interesting places to visit are the Royal Palace of King Toffa (Honmè Museum), Ethnographic Museum Alexandre Sènou ADANDE and Songhaï Center.
The Honmè Museum is the former palace of King Toffa. In this museum, there are no objects or artifacts exhibited a part from an old chair given to King Toffa and some pictures of former kings. This museum helps to better understand how kings were well organized as far as spatial organization was concerned. Visitors can also learn the importance of the voodoo religion in the kings’ daily life and how the kings kept track of time with a particular type of calendar.
The Ethnographic Museum Alexandre Sènou ADANDE is a museum where there are two major exhibitions. The first is on three major topics in Benin: Birth, Life and Death. Through this exhibition, one can understand how Benin people stick to their traditional values though there is an invasion of foreign religions and other practices. The second is on Guèlèdè Masks. Men, to pay honor to women for their tremendous role in society, wear a mask with women attributes. There are two types of Guèlèdè Masks: The Diurnal Mask used to sensitize people on moral values and Nocturnal Mask used to purify the society in case of epidemic diseases or a curse. Visitors can also see another exhibition on how calabash is used in the Beninese culture.
The Songhaï Center is a place much visited mainly by those who are passionate about agriculture as it is a centre for sustainable agriculture.
In Benin, Godfrey Nzamujo created in the 1980s the first Songhaï farm based on a simple idea: produce everything on spot in a sustainable way by limiting waste as much as possible. All resources are reused, such as waste and manure converted to gas, metals melted to repair machines. Songhaï Farms offer a self-sustaining and profitable development model through intelligent use of resources. The basic idea is that nothing is lost, everything is transformed. Songhai is a center for training, production, research and development in sustainable agriculture based on an integrated production system that creates an alliance between people, the environment and technology.
Profits from the sale of goods produced here are used to train African farmers and assist them in setting up farms in areas where they are needed.
Many types of fruit and vegetables are grown, animals are raised and there is a fish farm, water filtration plant and fruit juice production.
Visitors can see how each section creates the bio-fuels to allow the other sections to function and how everything is used with no waste. After the tour, they can also sample delicious organic products and meals in the Songhaï Restaurant.
The Songhaï Center is not the only ecotourism site that Benin has to offer. In Cotonou, whale watching is a major activity from August to October every year. A tour to Possotomè and/or Grand – Popo is an opportunity to stay in eco – lodges or eco – guesthouses, to discover the traditional use of plants for medicinal and food purposes, to relax at a beach resort, to discover the lifestyle of Beninese fishermen, to admire bird watching, to do market gardening and plant mangroves with eco – volunteers. Replanting mangroves is a “carbon action” that contributes to the fight against global warming and facilitates the reproduction of fish.
Benin is a small but beautiful country where tradition and culture are still part of the everyday life. Benin dishes are said to be the most delicious in West Africa. The legendary welcome and hospitality of the Beninese people, their history, tradition and culture make this destination a wonderland full of unforgettable experiences for all, regardless of one’s budget for a tour.
There is no need to fear linguistic barriers as Benin is a French-speaking country. There are Beninese tour guides who can speak fluently and communicate in international languages such as English, Chinese, German and Spanish and even Yoruba language. In Benin, you will find tour operators and guides who are professionals and are affiliated to the West Africa Tour Guide Association (WATGA) and the World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations (WFTGA). I am the current president of the Benin National Association of Independent and Professional Tour Guides (ANAGIP), Vice president of the West Africa Tour Guide Association (WATGA). I would also recommend GOTA Voyages, one of the leading Tour Operators in the Republic of Benin, who recently celebrated their tenth anniversary and brought top tour operators from across West Africa on a formalization tour to Benin.