Regarded as the home of Vodun (also known as Voodoo), the Republic of Benin, formerly known as Dahomey, is a small and narrow country located in West Africa, and is bordered by Togo to the west, Burkina Faso to the northwest, Niger to the northeast, Nigeria to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south.
From empires to republics
Historically, the area that is now modern-day Benin was ruled by several powerful kingdoms and empires, including the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was known for its powerful military discipline and involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For over 200 years, the coast of Benin was a major centre of the slave trade where millions of enslaved Africans were sold to Portuguese, Dutch, French and British merchants and forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean into slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Dahomey was a French colony and a part of French West Africa from 1904 until 1960, when it gained its independence as the Republic of Dahomey. In 1972, power was seized by Mathieu Kérékou, who went on to pursue a Marxist-Leninist policy, and three years later renamed the country the People’s Republic of Benin. The late 1980s and early 1990s proved to be a very turbulent time for Benin, and it was in 1991 that pro-democracy protests and the first multiparty elections led to the end of Kérékou’s regime, calling for the establishment of a multiparty democracy, which in turn resulted in what is now known as the Republic of Benin.
People and place
With a population of around 13.4 million (2022), most people live in the southern part of the country. Both linguistically and culturally diverse, there are 55 languages and 42 distinct ethnic groups in Benin. French, a result of French colonial rule from 1872 to 1960, is the official language, while 50 are national Beninese languages. Fon and Yoruba are the most widely spoken indigenous languages in the south, and Bariba and Fulfulde are in the north. The official capital of Benin is Porto-Novo, but the seat of government is in nearby Cotonou, which is the largest and most populous city.
The south of Benin is characterised by the enormous palm groves, lagoons, and marshes of the fertile plateau of Terre de Barre. In contrast, savannah covered by thorny shrubs, woodland and crops (Benin is one of Africa’s largest cotton producers) dominates the central part of the country. In the north and northeast are two of the most protected and biodiverse ecosystems in Africa, Pendjari National Park and W National Park. These protected areas are home to the largest elephant population in West Africa and one of the last viable populations of West African lion, Northwest African cheetah, and Korrigum antelope.
Voodoo and slavery
It was during the 17th century, at the height of the slave trade, that the syncretic religion of Voodoo developed in Benin as a way for enslaved Africans to preserve their cultural identity and spiritual traditions in the face of the oppressive conditions of slavery. It is based on the belief in a supreme being, as well as a pantheon of deities or loa, who have specific roles and responsibilities in the spiritual world. Practised in secret, the religion of Voodoo was a form of resistance against slavery, with practitioners using spells and charms to protect themselves and their loved ones.
After the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Vodoo continued to be practised in Benin and other parts of West Africa. However, the religion encountered severe persecution and marginalisation from European colonial powers and Christian missionaries, who viewed Voodoo as a threat to their own religion. It was later in the 20th century that Voodoo underwent a revival in Benin and other African countries as part of a wider movement to reclaim traditional African culture and spirituality. Today, Voodoo is recognised as an official religion in Benin and is practised by millions of people across the country.
The impact and tensions of the slave trade are still very much seen and felt in Benin today, both in the physical remnants of the historical slave ports and coastal forts — the city of Ouidah was one of the most active slave trading ports in all of Africa — and in the cultural and social structures that were shaped by centuries of exploitation and oppression. With that said, however, Benin has made great strides in addressing its past, and is taking steps to recognise and confront this painful history, including the creation of museums devoted to telling the story of the victims of the slave trade.
Destinations in Benin include the capital and administrative cities of Porto-Novo and Contonou, the royal city of Abomey, Dassa-Zoumé, the spiritual home of Vodun Ouidah, the stilt village of Ganvié, Grand-Popo, Lac Ahémè, the Atakora region and surrounding mountains, and Pendjari National Park. Benin is a unique and fascinating destination, quite unlike any other on our books, and one that promises to deliver the most powerful and unexpected of experiences.