Sunday, October 21, 2012


Tucked away in Western Africa, Benin [pronounced beh-NEEN] is a small country that touches the Atlantic Ocean. Originally called the Kingdom of Dahomey and later called the Republic of Dahomey after their independence (*adding to my list of favorite names), it was later changed to Benin, named after the body of water that lies near it: the Bight of Benin. [A bight – a new term for me – is a geographic term in this sense meaning a large, slightly receding bay.]

Benin is a narrow strip of land that touches the Bight of Benin (Atlantic Ocean) and is bordered by Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Togo. The country is hot and dry, with definite rainy seasons and dry seasons. The land is actually somewhat diverse: the coastal areas have many low-lying, sandy plains, forest-covered plateaus to rocky hills and mountains. There are a couple of nature reserves in the northern part of the country, providing great places to be able to see the flora and fauna in the natural habitats.

The Kingdom of Dahomey was known for its military and soldiers – both men’s and women’s corps. For about 300 years, the kingdom was right in the middle of what was known as the “Slave Coast.” And for a while, the Dahomey warriors avoided being part of it, but it did eventually catch up to them as well until it was banned in 1885. By the end of the 1800s, the kingdom had declined, and the French took over the area and controlled it for nearly 60 years until Benin’s independence from France. There was a period in its history where there were several changes in its name as well as its political stance.  In October 1972, Lt. Col. Mathieu Kérékou took over and officially declared Benin as a Marxist country. Scores of teachers and other professionals eventually left the country to escape the regime’s overextended power. In 1989, Kérékou conceded to allow the elections that eventually voted him out, and the name was changed to the Republic of Benin the following year.

Much of Benin’s economy is based on subsistence farming, cotton production and trade. However, there are problems with lower wages for women, child labor, and forced labor. Health care is at a dangerous low. The vast majority of people don’t have access to health care, and there aren’t enough doctors and/or hospitals. Basic sanitation and access to clean drinking water aren’t available in many places, especially true in the rural areas. Risk to infectious diseases are very high: diseases such as hepatitis A, typhoid fever, malaria, yellow fever, meningococcal meningitis, and rabies. Benin is also plagued by high infant and maternal mortality rates with an overall life expectancy of around 60 years old. Benin also has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, and it’s lower if you’re a female.

Many people in Benin utilize Akan naming traditions, that is, naming children based on the day of the week they were born, birth order, or any special circumstances to which the child was born. One famous example of this would be former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan. (He’s actually from nearby Ghana.) His first name corresponds to Friday, and his middle name of Atta corresponds to him being a twin.

Benin is one of those few countries that has two capitals. The official one is Porto-Novo, but the seat of government is in nearby Cotonou. Because of the French occupation, the French language is the official language, however most people also speak Fon or Yoruba as well as other local and regional African languages. The Fon do make up the majority of ethnic groups in Benin. There are slightly more Christians of various denominations in Benin, followed by those who practice Islam and Vodun (spelled a variety of ways, an animalistic religion that is related to Voodoo in Louisiana and Santería in Cuba).

Benin’s roots as a strong people, the cultural melding of its history, and its geography excites me to delve into its cultural arts, especially its music and cuisine. A country I had only a little pre-knowledge about, my preliminary research has piqued my interest in a country most Americans don’t know where it is, if they’ve even heard of it.  It happens to be a treat for me, since I am cooking and baking on my birthday.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

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