Benin probably isn’t at the top of your bucket list! For myself, having visited numerous times, I’ve had the chance to dig a little deeper into what the country has to offer. I can say with certainty that this tiny francophone country sandwiched between Togo (west), Nigeria (east), Burkina Faso and Niger (north), is well worth a visit and could be a surprising addition to your bucket list. With ample wildlife, remote safari, spectacular historic sights and an extremely unique culture here are five great reasons why you should visit Benin:
Getting off the Beaten Path on a West African Safari
When you think of great safari destinations West Africa doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Besides the fact that East and Southern Africa are better geared up for the more luxurious safari experience, West Africa also has somewhat of a dearth of wildlife in comparison to its competition. Benin somewhat bucks that trend and its two major national parks, Pendjari and W (Yes, just ‘W’) provide hardy travelers with some of the most rewarding wildlife experiences anywhere in the region (and if you’re lucky, just as rewarding as East and Southern Africa). In addition to stunning landscapes and a true sense of adventure, the 8-hour drive to Northern Benin’s national parks might reward visitors with sightings as varied as aardvark, baboon, buffalo, bush buck, caracal, cheetah, civet, duiker, elephant, giraffe, hippo, kob, leopard, lion, oribi, painted hunting dog, reedbuck, roan antelope, serval, side stripped jackal, spotted hyena, tantalus monkey, warthog, waterbuck and western hartebeest.
Exploring the Cradle of Voodoo
Benin, and in particular Ouidah on Benin’s Southern coastline, is famed for being the worldwide epicenter of Voodoo (not so much the dark magic and cinematically clichéd version of voodoo, but something much more (and surprisingly) closely aligned spiritually and culturally to Christianity and Islam). I can therefore say with some conviction that a few days exploring the country’s Voodoo temples and sacred forests is equal parts fascinating and occasionally gory. Undoubtedly the highlight of the Voodoo calendar is the annual Fete du Vodoun (Voodoo Festival) held on January 10th. Although Voodoo is an official national religion in Benin, and the festival is held across the entire country, Ouidah is the undisputed center of the religion; not just in Benin but in the World. Let’s just say that the festival is a true spectacle and one not to be missed – so long as you aren’t squeamish (or vegan) in any way, shape or form. If you imagine something akin to a much darker version of Carnival in Rio where, alongside much drinking and merriment, chicken’s throats are ripped out by the teeth of high priests, goats are slaughtered to the Python Gods, devotees engage in acts of self-mutilation on the streets and beach parties rage through the night. It’s colorful, loud, inebriating and, at times, barbaric; something not to be missed but probably not fun for the whole family!
Learning about Benin’s Tragic History of Slavery
Together with Ghana, Senegal and Gambia, Benin was one of the four slave trade gates in West Africa from the 17th to 19th century. In all it’s estimated that over a million slaves left for Brazil, the U.S and the Caribbean colonies from Benin, and the beginning of that horrific journey commenced on Ouidah’s Slave Route. Starting at the reconstructed Portuguese Fort (which is now the Ouidah Museum of History), you can trace the 4km route from the fort’s slave market to the Door of No Return; which memorializes the slave’s final moments on African soil. Other notable monuments along the route include the Tree of Forgetfulness Monument; where slaves were branded and forced to circle the tree in order to symbolically clear their memory of Africa and their homes, and the Zomaï Huts Memorial; which memorializes the huts in which slaves were kept shackled for up to months in perpetual darkness before boarding the slaver’s ships. It’s an intensely sobering experience, but one that should be experienced by all visitors to Benin. If you want to learn more about Benin’s tribal history and the role of slavery then make sure you visit the former Portuguese Slave Fort in Ouidah which is now home to the Ouidah Museum of History.
Sampling Benin’s Culinary Delights
Benin has a thriving street food scene dominated by corn-based dishes in the South, yams in the north and peanuts being extremely prevalent. If you’re keen to try out some of the local cuisine then here are a few options to get you started:
- Akassa: Essentially fermented cornmeal balls usually served with a sauce (to be fair, you probably need the sauce because they can taste a little sour).
- Amiwo: Red corn dough often mixed with onions, peppers and tomato puree.
- Wagasi: I couldn’t go without adding some cheese to the list! This cow cheese is popular in northern Benin and is particularly mild.
- Fufu: Fufu is a staple food pretty common across much of West Africa. It is typically mashed yams or cassava and is delicious when served with a sauce.
- Alcohol: Wash it all down with a Choukachou or “chouk” which is a Beninese millet beer commonly consumed in northern Benin or a ‘le Beninoise’ – Benin’s home produced version of a basic pilsner.
Experiencing a Unique Way of Life in Ganvié
With around 25,000 residents Ganvié, also lovingly referred to as the ‘Venice of Africa’ (although that may be a slight exaggeration), is the largest stilted water settlement in Africa and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Built on Lake Nokoue just north of Cotonou Ganvié is, in my humble opinion, the highlight of a trip to Cotonou. The town was founded as a shelter from Portuguese slavers because, in the Fon religion, it is believed that raiders are unable to approach people living on water. Today, the community thrives on sustainable fishing and the income received from the relatively small tourist industry. Ganvié is only about 10 miles north of Cotonou; extending out several kilometers into the shallow waters. It’s a fascinating place to grab a glimpse in to the rare life of a water-dweller and to learn more about the circumstances that led so many people to seek refuge in such an isolated setting only accessible by small motorized boats and wooden canoes. The town is only accessible by boat, and from Cotonou, the easiest way to visit is to book a motorised boat from Hotel Du Lac (see Additional Resources section below). Plan to be on the water for about 3-4 hours to visit Ganvie, the markets and waterside homes of Cotonou as well as the many fisherman on the lake in their Pirogues (wooden, carved-out long boats).