As Seen in…
Places to visit in Benin and on our Benin tours
Why visit Togo?
Benin is a land shrouded in mystery: its relative seclusion until recent years and the fact that the majority of the 11.5 population dwell close to the coast mean that the substantial interior of around 115,000 km² is obscure and escaped heavy colonial influence. Add to this the myths and terrors that outsiders traditionally built around the nation’s famous (or indeed infamous) Vodun religion – ‘voodoo’ in lay terms – and the sense of this being a destination where folklore and fiction hold sway is complete.
The reality is a stark contrast: over 50% of the population belong to the locally burgeoning Christian faith and the people of Benin are a charming, imaginative and always deeply hospitable set. Perhaps more surprisingly then for world of supposed superstition and clichéd terrors, Benin is a centre of academic renown: the Catholic mission schools have turned out generations of students whose renown and indeed presence has spread successfully across West Africa.
Yet Benin is also a wonderfully varied, vivid and diverse place: 42 different ethnic groups offer the visitor a dizzying array of encounters with people whose traditions and art are prized and still thrive across the length of this narrow country. From the kaleidoscope of colours on the old quay-buildings at Porto Novo, with its mouth-wateringly corn, peanut and fruit-based exotic recipes, to the yam cultivating proud warrior cultures of the tribes that fringe the edges of the region’s most important National Parks that work at preserving the endangered West African lion population, elephants, antelopes and monkeys, this is a place where historic culture is alive and well.
The landscape offers equally fascinating variegation: the 121 km coastal strip is mangrove edged, marshy in places and has lagoons and lake-based cultures where market boats trade against the backdrop of stilt villages such as Ganvie on Lake Nokwe. This gives way to the remnants of the sacred forests of the Vodun peoples and the richly cultivated areas that metamorphose into the forest-savanna, dotted with massive baobabs and small hill villages that provided protection from the marauding slavers.
Finally, the highlands of the north turn semi-arid, but are also home to the two great National Parks of the nation. Little is known of Benin’s earliest civilisations, but the Fon kingdom centred on Abomey and dominated the south when the European influence was most pronounced. By the 18th century, this Kingdom of Dan-Homey was in full sway and reigned over the area with fierce brutality. Portuguese traders had first arrived in the 15th century and later established a fort at Porto Novo and which led to a huge increase in slaving, literally hundreds of thousands of people being transported across the Atlantic, mostly captives of the tyrannical regime. The dynasty earned the grudging name of ‘Black Sparta’ from European visitors, owing partly to its indomitable force of 6,000 warrior women. It is said that the abolition of slavery came just in time for the regime since its population was so depleted by human sacrifices as to be virtually unsustainable.
Hence, a weakened state crumbled before the French attack in 1892 and the whole region was forcibly colonized. Yet throughout the nest two centuries of foreign rule, independence, multiple coups and violent episodes, leading to today’s 1975 Republic and 1990s hard-won democracy, what has survived is the extraordinarily resilient culture: the skill-sets of centuries are preserved in artisanal centres and the old religions still abound.
To visit here is to slip gently into a world of timeless and fascinating cultural bounty.