After 7 weeks spent in Benin 2 years ago, it’s still an unforgettable memory. Little did I know, I was luckily there during the rain season (May-September), meaning that all the tourists were gone! Therefore, we were often the only “yovos” (“White” in Fon dialect) during the trip. Indeed, travelers don’t really flock to Benin when they end up in Sub Saharan Africa; and it’s quite a shame as the country is full of wonders and cultural treasures.
So pack your bags and discover the Voodoo rituals, ask the driver if you can get behind the wheel of the bush taxi or moto-taxi (zemidjan, “Bring me quickly!”, in Fon dialect), make yourself a tailored African suit, navigate on the “African Venice” and you can even walk around the country carrying a machete! (my favorite).
You’ll understand quickly that Voodoo cannot be reduced to torturing a doll that looks like your worst enemy. Actually, Voodoo is an animist religion that strongly shaped the beliefs and habits of Beninese people: it relies on the cult of the ancestors and the forces of Nature.
The home of Voodoo is in Ouidah – a quiet city that totally changes for the Voodoo Day on January 10th, every year – but it’s really everywhere! It’s easier to witness a Voodoo ceremony if you go deeper into the countryside as it’s part of a village’s life… to pay a tribute to newborn babies, deaths or any important milestones. They might even organise a Voodoo ceremony in your honor; and, really, it’s very uncommon and unique!
The most adventurous can also “consult the Fâ”, which is a one-on-one meeting with a sort of Voodoo priest that will predict your future and give you advice! Below, the one I met in his wooden house full of all kinds of potions… and he told me that I will never improve at soccer but I will meet an old wise man that will change the rest of my life!
An outstanding historical and cultural heritage
Wars between the different kingdoms, foreign exploitation followed by colonisation, slavery, independence, birth of a new State… Benin has a long and very complex history that shaped the construction of today’s Beninese State. You’ll probably head to Abomey – historic capital of the last kingdom of Dahomey – and Ouidah – on top of voodoo, it was the main hub for slave trade and boarding – to discover the history of Benin.
Benin is also a great place to discover African art: you’ll meet everywhere craftsmen producing their own artworks. On a more personal note, I really enjoyed the Zinsou Foundation (in Cotonou & Ouidah) that continuously exhibits talented African artists. As a result of historical, cultural and ethnographic influences, all the sculptures, traditional objects or piece of arts that you’ll find all around Benin will never be the same!
Behave like a Beninese
Benin is the ideal place to escape your daily routine:
- Turn off your brain with the Beninese soap operas you are forced to watch in the bus before being invaded by street vendors once you arrive,
- Hire a zemidjan all day long until you are to lazy to walk even 14 meters,
- Try to survive the ultra spicy manioc, corn or yam paste,
- Sit on the gear of a Renault bush taxi from the 70s’ and drive it yourself,
- Share a dying motorbike with 4 other passengers and drive it yourself again,
- Meet elephants that attack you on a safari,
- Have a hike in the middle of the bushes, and lead the way with your machete.
You won’t be bored!
… and continue at home.
I proudly reached Level 1000 at Tetris after managing to put a machete in my suitcase; which I happily hung in my room. I guess it’s my most original souvenir ever and you can find yours in any market (in every city), especially the 18 hectares open air market of Dantokpa in Cotonou – the biggest one in West Africa -, where you’ll find anything you dream of.
I personally brought back an army of tailored African suits, a traditional wooden game of Awalé – a sort of Beninese chess – which occupies the days of seniors, and a lot of local drinks – all kinds of mango, palm or red wines made locally and, of course, sodabi, a mysterious (and very strong) alcohol that is drunk by all ages.
You have to try if you want to feel Beninese!