[ed. note: I’m off exploring Taipei. Our ski town correspondent is skiing pow. In the meantime, here’s a guest post about general travel in Benin, West Africa. The writing’s courtesy of my sister, who served 2.5 years of Peace Corps service there. It’s a fascinating piece—I guarantee you will learn something new!]
I am a geography nerd who loves maps and learning about the world, so I knew about the country called Benin, but I probably would never have visited had the Peace Corps not invited me to serve there. (More on Peace Corps service later!)
Benin was colonized by the French, and there is still a small contingent of French voluntourists who visit the country, but in the English-speaking world, it is largely unknown. It deserves more recognition.
Benin is a small, key-shaped (or so they say) nation on the coast of West Africa. It is bordered on the east by Nigeria, and on the west by Togo (which is one country over from Ghana, perhaps the best-known West African nation and a poster-child for international development).
Yes, you will need to have some French language skills to get by here. Very few people speak English. Though once you get out of the capital, you’ll find that many of the people you encounter don’t speak French either. They will be thrilled to teach you a few phrases in the local language, though.
Here are some interesting facts about Benin and advice for your travels there.
Benin was one of the gateways for the slave trade out of Africa.
This is a memorial at the “point of no return” where slaves were put onto ships after leaving the slave fortress in Ouidah, western Benin. There is a fairly interesting museum in Ouidah about slavery that is worth a visit. There are several other historical sites related to slavery in this city as well, including the Tree of Forgetting, the Wall of Lamentations, and more.
Ouidah is also home to the python temple, which is important in vodun religion (discussed below). You can get some awesome photos of yourself draped with a huge snake here if you are brave enough!
Benin is the birthplace of the vodun (voodoo) religion.
It is much more than sticking pins into dolls, as popular culture would have you believe.
It is a community-based religion that acknowledges many different gods representing different parts of life. Vodun is most popular in southern Benin, though there is also a heavy evangelical Christian influence. You will see small monuments to different gods throughout the country and may notice people leaving offerings to some of them.
If you have the opportunity to attend a Vodun ceremony such as the one pictured below, it is a fascinating cultural experience that is not to be missed.
A man dances at a vodun ceremony
People making music at a voodoo dance ceremony.
A vodun spirit (revenant) dances at a ceremony. A young handler keeps the spirit from attacking the onlookers.
If you’re lucky, you will glimpse a revenant (vodun spirit pictured above) while in Benin. They sometimes roam the streets of Benin, particularly in the south. If approached by a revanant, you should listen to what the handler is requesting of you. Beninese people believe that touching the cloaks of a revenant will kill a human being, so best not to get too close. Usually, they are satisfied by a payment of a small amount of money ($1 American or 500 fcfa would usually be sufficient.)
Generally, revenants are not very concerned with foreigners and they will let you pass in peace. If you want to photograph one, you will need to pay a small amount and get permission from its handler.
Local people will sing to you about your skin color
If you look like a foreigner, people will address you by calling you “yovo.” Yovo is the word in Fon (the most prevalent local language in Benin) that means foreigner or person with white skin. You may be used to this if you have visited other African countries. Though it may feel weird at first, usually this comes from a place of trying to be respectful. It’s just that culturally, people show respect in different way.
If you spend any time in Benin at all, you will become familiar with the song that is associated with foreigners (the yovo song). It is really annoying (REALLY annoying) and will be sung to you by children and adults alike. The song is actually taught in schools, as a way to interact with foreigners. Literally translated it just means something along the lines of “foreigner, how are you? I’m fine, and you?” but it repeats over and over and over…
Yovo, yovo, bon soir
ca va? ca va, merci
et chez vous?
If you have grown up in a culture that tells you that it is rude to point out someone’s skin color, this will make you very uncomfortable at first.
If you can find a way to be amused by it, you will be best served in Benin. Dance to the yovo song, sing along, make up your own song… If you are enraged by it, you won’t last very long in Benin.
The signature dishes are delicious
Igname pilé (pounded yam, known as fufu in Nigeria) is the most popular dish in Benin and you must eat it at least once during your visit. It is made of pounded yams (more like potatoes than what the typical American thinks of as yams), and served with sauce (peanut sauce is the most popular) and the protein of your choice (fish, chicken, goat, cheese, hard boiled eggs, etc.).
It is eaten by hand (wash your hands well with soap before eating!) by taking a chunk of the pounded yam, molding it into a ball with your hand, and then dipping it into the sauce. It’s actually quite tasty, but best to be fairly hungry when you eat it.
I highly recommend the Beninese cheese, called wagashi, in the sauce with your igname pilé, or with anything else you eat. Don’t expect it to taste like the cheese you are used to, but it is delicious in its own way.
Benin also has an abundance of “cafeterias,” which you can look for if you are craving food that is more familiar. Their typical fare is based on eggs – omelets with baguettes, omelets with spaghetti (surprisingly delicious – I recommend it), or just plain omelet. Conveniently the French and English words for omelet are cognates so ordering will be a breeze.
Cafeterias also feature coffee (instant with a huge amount of sweetened condensed milk).
Shopping is a fun challenge
Shopping in Benin is one of the most enchanting (and overwhelming) things about the country.
There are open-air markets everywhere and you must find your way to whatever you want to purchase. Or occasionally, it will come to you on the head of some child or adult carrying wares. Most vendors in Benin will mark up the price slightly, expecting you to bargain to some degree.
There is a great market in Glazoué, near where I lived, every Wednesday, and also in Parakou (northern Benin) daily.
Alcoholic beverages abound
The most popular beer is the country’s namesake, La Beninoise.
It’s not great but not terrible, and very affordable. A big bottle, 500 mL is about the equivalent of $1 US. Big bottles are often sold for less than little bottles, as the small bottles are a status symbol. People who buy the small bottles are typically government employees who are showing off the fact that they can afford to drink the small bottles even though it is less cost-effective.
Buy the big bottle. But notice who is buying the small bottles around you – this will be the elite class.
Don’t get so caught up in drinking beer that you miss the local alcohol.
Chuk-a-tuk and chakpalo are local fermented alcohols made from corn or millet. They are both served in gourd-like bowls in small stands in markets. There are subtle ways to tell them apart but if you’ve tasted one, you’ve gotten the idea. It only costs about 25 fcfa for a bowl full of one of these (way less expensive than a beer), so even if you can’t finish it, it’s worth trying. You can always give yours to the guy sitting next to you in the market. He will be glad to finish it for you.
Transportation is an adventure in itself
If you are traveling between cities in Benin, buses are usually the best way to go. They’re not expensive (usually less than $10 for a fare) and you get your own seat. Your other option is a taxi, which is less expensive and a more authentic Beninese experience but which will usually not be as timely and will typically involve 7-10 people crammed into a sedan.
Within any given city (and even between nearby cities), you can take a motorcycle taxi, known as a zemidjan (a Fon word literally meaning “take me there fast”). I would recommend buying a helmet to wear while riding on zems, as they can be a bit dangerous. It is a very convenient and fun way to get around, though. Fares within a city are usually less than 1,000fcfa ($2).
Each city has a designated color jersey for their zemidjan drivers to wear so you know the difference between a motorcycle taxi and a random person driving a motorcycle.
If you visit, I recommend getting out of Cotonou (the largest city, where the airport is) and exploring the rest of the country.
If you are a woman, you should plan to dress conservatively in Benin to avoid unwanted attention and to show respect for the culture. Skirts below the knees and shirts that cover your shoulders are best. If you wear a scarf on your head, it also signifies that you are unavailable for male advances and may help you avoid street harassment. (It also frees you from worrying about your hair!)
There are a couple of national parks in Benin that feature wildlife and safaris where you can view the wildlife. These are expensive, but totally worth it in my experience. We went on a safari in early February and were able to view a lot of wildlife as it was the dry season.
Hope you enjoyed learning about Benin!