Interesting, amusing and quirky facts about Benin.
1. Winter Issue
People in Benin wear heavy winter coats in the summer. Yes! Really! In middle of July I landed in Cotonou airport just after 10 pm and temperature was about 26 degree on plus.
I was all happy in my t-shirt waiting for the taxi driver to put my luggage in the trunk when I noticed a man in the proper winter jacket. I felt like in the hidden camera! Something was not quiet right. For a Polish Girl accustomed to very tough winters it was just absurd!
So I went off to investigate this issue and talked with people in my hotel. A barman who I spoke with didn’t want to believe that Poland has extremely low temperatures, like thirty on MINUS. Accompanied by piles of snow.
‘No wonder I don’t know any African person that has ever visited your country’, he said. He added that in August temperature go as low as 22 degrees on plus and it is freaking cold and nobody goes out of the house if they do not have to!
What the heck? But I guess it is all relevant in our world! When you have 54 in the summer than I guess 22 seems terribly cold. Eventually I started playing by the rules and wearing my jacket everywhere.
2. Voodoo Cradle
This West African country is the cradle of ‘voodoo’. The locals call it ‘Vodun’ which means ‘spirits’. Voodoo followers believe that Earth is ruled by five divine elements. And before you start imaging voodoo dolls and all the black magic stuff I would like to stop you here!
Their ceremonies have nothing to do with the distorted image that has been popularised in Europe and America over Hollywood and no Hollywood movies. Maybe except one aspect which many people would find scary and uncomfortable… they worships serpents.
The religion was initiated back in the 13th century by its founder, ancestor of the kings of Allada. Voodoo came to Brazil and Caribbean with West African slaves ships.
Voodoo is an official religion of Benin and it is only official in one country in the world! Vodun believers coexist peacefully with Christians and Muslims, yet another country proving it is possible to live in peace one next to each other, no matter which God you believe!
3. Photography Issue
People in Benin believe that photography steals a piece of the soul. You may think it is an outdated superstition, but respecting their beliefs will take you a long way. Always ask for permission or take pictures from far away.
This unfounded fear has its origin in Animism and Voodoo. Personal belongings such as nail clippings, pieces of clothing, hair or blood could be used to cast a spell or a course. It isn’t a far stretch to believe that a photographic image has similar powers. So portraits or close up pictures are very difficult to shoot.
But I never say never. Many people, especially kids will not mind. Actually they will be so amazed with camera itself that they will think it is some kind of magic and you are super powerful human! :)
4. Petrol station!
The most characteristic sights of Benin are the petrol stations. Ok, Marysia! We know that you are weird but surly this beautiful country has many other things to be highlighted!
I do agree with you but you know I love public transport and anything around it amuse me!
Those African-style little stands selling illegal petrol in any possible container are just great! Maybe not beautiful but genuine! And that is what I love about travelling, that I get to see real places not saturated and photoshopped images.
The price of original petrol is above the financial reach for majority of people in this country. So illegal petrol from Nigeria is being sold everywhere. Everyone buys it. Even public transport like buses and taxis. And there is very little ‘legal’ petrol stations here, maybe every 200km once you leave Cotonou. But I’m sure you understand a rule of market and demand so I will stop patronizing you my dear reader!
5. Expressing Amazement
The people of Benin have the most unique way of expressing amazement. A very specific sound! As soon as you hear it in the conversation, you will understand my astonishment. The voice timbres are different. The accentuation is always the same.
It is hard to explain it with words and I regret not taking any videos! But I’m sure once you there you will know what I’m talking about!
6. To be or not to be… French?
Did Benin claimed freedom from France many years ago? It did!
Is the national anthem, ‘L’Aube Nouvelle’ still sung in French? It is!
Is French an official language here? It is!
Is Bastille Day is celebrated more than in France itself? It seems so from what I have seen in Cotonou.
Maybe that is why I liked this country so much! You know I love everything French, except French Psycho Ex of mine of course.
7. Cotton is gold!
Cotton is gold! It constitutes 80% of the country’s export, but I will leave those boring facts for some economist to talk about!
Cotton is widely used here in fashion industry, actually I think clothes here are made purely from cotton. The quality of fabrics is spectacular.
I was truly amazed by fashion here! So vibrant and colourful. Especially women fashion, it is magical what they can do with one piece of material. Souvenirs? Invest in the superb fabrics sold around the markets. I have bought some for my mum, she will love it!
8. ‘Yovo’ = White man
In Benin you are a ‘yovo’. White person! But do not take it as an offense, this is how things are. You will hear it everywhere. You will be shouted at from far away to wave, to smile, to talk.
Some kids may be scared of you because they will see white person first time in their lives. Luckily majority will smile and welcome you in their country.
People in Benin are super friendly and always have smiles on their faces! And anyway you gonna be a bigger attraction to them than they to you.
That is a reality of Benin, there is no white people here. On my 3 weeks stay I have met other Europeans only few times and I have only one picture to prove it! It is a great group of volunteers from Belgium I have met in Porto Novo.
9. To go or not to go? That is a question.
Benin used to known as The Kingdom of Dahomey. French Dahomey. People’s Republic of Benin. And finally from 1991 the Republic of Benin. It is one of the first countries in Africa to have successfully transformed from a dictatorship to a pluralistic political system. Today it is one of the most stable countries in Africa.
That is why I can’t imagine why majority of Departments of Foreign Affairs advice against travelling in Benin. Even people in my hotel were telling me not to go anywhere because it is dangerous. When I said I will go with public transport to Porto Novo, the faceof the receptionist when almost white! They offered me a driver for free to avoid me going with public transport! Crazy! And not that I have listened, I love public transport!
For the time I have spend, places I have visited and distances I have travelled in this country, not even once I felt in danger. And I do travel as a single woman. I think that the stage of the roads and pollutions are much bigger risk to your health than actually interacting with locals! People in Benin were super amazing to me!
10. Slave Coast
Benin was part of the Slave Coast during the colonial era and surly is not proud of this period of its history. Allada and Porto Novo played the main roles in the slave trade, while Ouidah was the main port of sending slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean.
Their own kings are to blame for this tragedy and even though Benin forbade trading its own men and women in the 16th century, other tribes and nations were still traded for guns and goods.
Benin people are highly respective of the ‘slave history’ and maintain numerous museums and monuments for future populations.