From The Hippo’s Ears: Benin

Facts you may not have know about Benin:

Benin, officially the Republic of Benin (République du Bénin), is a country in West Africa. It is bordered by Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east, and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. The majority of its population lives on the small southern coastline of the Bight of Benin, part of the Gulf of Guinea in the northernmost tropical portion of the Atlantic Ocean.

Benin has a population of approximately 11 million, is a presidential republic, and gained independence from France in 1960.

1.  When you first meet someone, how do you greet them?

The most common greeting in Benin is the handshake. Some may choose to greet with cheek kisses. Basic verbal greetings in French include “Bonjour” (good afternoon) and “Comment allez-vous?” (How are you?)

2. What languages are spoken in the country?

Benin has one official language – French – which is spoken by around 4 million locals. For the majority of French speakers in Benin, it is their second language. Most print media is in French, and it is important to  know the language in order to work in government. A unique variety of French called français d’Afrique has developed in the country. Fon is the most widely spoken indigenous language. Other spoken languages include Yoruba, Bariba, Mina, and Yom.

3. Do you use a twelve hour clock, or a twenty-four hour clock?

We use a 24-hour system.

4. What side of the road do people drive on? What do we need to know about driving in the country?

We drive on the right side of road.

5. How important is punctuality?

Time is flexible in Benin. People don’t always arrive on time for meetings, as part of the culture.

6. Which types of music are popular? Who are some of the most popular musicians?

Benin has played an important role in the African music scene, producing one of the biggest stars to come out of the continent – Angélique Kidjo.

Post-independence, the country has been home to a vibrant and innovative music scene, where native folk music combined with Ghanaian highlife, French cabaret, American rock, funk and soul, and Congolese rumba. It also has a rich variety of ethno-musicological traditions.

The northern regions of Benin are home to the Bariba and the Somba peoples. Each has a different approach to the role of music in their culture. Within the highly hierarchical Bariba society, music is usually performed by professional musicians, or griots, storytellers in ceremonies; the function of this music is to enhance the prestige and the pomp surrounding a prince or his dignitaries. For the Somba, in contrast, music is part of everyday life

In recent times, hip-hop and R&B have become popular genres. Benin is also home to zouk musicians such as Richard Flash, Martin Hod, and Miss Espoir.

For a taste of Beninese music, listen to Angélique Kidjo’s Batonga, and Gnonnas Pedro’s Abigbedoto.

Ouando Market in Porto-Novo, Benin.

7. Are there any Traditional Dances?

Benin, a country with a multitude of ethnic groups, has various interesting and unique traditional dances. Each dance can be linked to the heritage from which the respective ethnic group comes, and each has its own specific characteristics. Kpanouhoun is performed across the country, mostly during special events, such as weddings and graduation ceremonies. Other popular dances performed in various regions include Agbadja, Ogbon, Adjogan, and Akonhoun.

Watch an example of traditional dance in Benin here.

8.  What traditional Festivals are celebrated in the country?

Quintessence Film Festival

An annual film festival held in Ouidah, the Quintessence Festival is simply a celebration of local and international cinema that takes place in early January. Most of the films are in French with English subtitles. There is also a special selection of African films, of which the organizers are especially proud.

Gelede Festival

Taking place during the dry season between March and May, Gelede is a festival which honors mothers in the community and to pay respect to their female elders. One of the more vibrant festivals in Benin, choreographed dances, singing, music, and drumming are loved by all. The men don large masks and walk around to amuse the women. The city of Cové is especially known for its public displays during the period.

Waba Festival

The Waba festival is a recent initiative in order to facilitate and promote collaborative work between the visual artists in Benin. Held from June 5 to 9 in the galleries in Porto Novo and Cotonou, the event showcases works from around the country. The hope is to popularize art and start a more passionate dialogue between all sections of society about the role that art plays. Exhibitions are open to the public and are well worth a visit.

International Festival of the Dahomean Cultures

One of the last festivals of the year, the Dahomean Cultures runs for 10 days in December and is tasked with highlighting and celebrating the cultural diversity of Benin. Taking place in Abomey, the event showcases traditional songs, dances, folklore, and stories of the ancient Dahomey Kingdom and the many groups around the country.

9. What are the seasons like?

Benin’s climate is hot and humid. Annual rainfall in the coastal areas is low for coastal West Africa. Benin has two rainy and two dry seasons. The principal rainy season is from April to late July, with a shorter less intense rainy period from late September to November. The main dry season is from December to April, with a short cooler dry season from late July to early September. Temperatures and humidity are high along the tropical coast. A dry wind from the Sahara called the harmattan blows from December to March. Grass dries up, the vegetation turns reddish brown.

10. What are some interesting facts about the President?

President Patrice Talon has been President of Benin since April 2016. Talon is of Fon origins and was born in Ouidah. Talon had a successful career in business (in the agricultural industry), before getting involved in politics. He is married to Claudine Gbènagnon, from Porto-Novo, and has two children.

11. What are the country’s major industries?

Benin’s main export is cotton, accounting for a large percentage of the country’s GDP. The country also produces textiles, cocoa beans, maize, palm products, pineapples, and yams. Subsistence farming is common. Benin is also involved in the construction materials industry, producing cement.

12. What are some of the things visitors can look forward to experiencing in Benin?

The capital, Porto-Novo, showcases great examples of historical architecture, and houses the Musée da Silva and the Porto-Novo Museum of Ethnography. Cotonou offers a variety of street-side markets to explore, and the nearby Foundation Zinsou offers visitors a chance to see modern African art. Benin’s two national parks offer visitors the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife. Pendjari National Park is know for its birds, while the UNESCO-listed W National Park is home to some of West Africa’s last wild elephants.

Babs Dock, Cotonou, Benin.

13. What is a popular local drink?

Choukachou or “chouk” is a Beninese millet beer, commonly consumed in northern Benin, and shipped to southern Benin by railway and roadways. Sodabi is a liquor made from wine palm, and often consumed at events and ceremonies.

14. What is a popular local dish?

Frying in palm or peanut oil is the most common meat preparation, and smoked fish is also commonly prepared in Benin. Grinders are used to prepare corn flour, which is made into a dough and served with sauces. Wagasi is a specialty cows’-milk cheese of northern Benin made by the Fulani people, and is abundantly available in cities such as Parakou. It’s a soft cheese with a mild flavor and a red rind, and used often in Beninese cooking. Acarajé is a dish made from peeled black-eyed peas, formed into a ball and then deep-fried in dendê (palm oil). It is found in most parts Benin. Other local dishes include akpan (corn dumplings, dipped in a sauce) and ñam pilé (mashed yams with tambo chili).

15. What do you pay, on average, for the following? (1 USD = approx. CFA 583)

Benin’s currency is the West African CFA franc (CFA).

3 Course meal: CFA 3,500
Domestic beer (500ml): CFA 650
Cup of coffee: CFA 2,100
Coca cola (330ml): CFA 525
Milk (1l): CFA 1,000
Loaf of white bread: CFA 565
Apples (1 kg): CFA 2,500
Water (1.5l): CFA 530

16. Any general safety tips?

Foreigners are advised to avoid the northern border region adjacent to Burkina Faso, as well as Parc W, due to terrorism. Be cautious in urban areas, as crime is common. Use caution when walking or driving at night. Dantokpa market is particularly dangerous at night. Fraud is common – be cautious when using ATMs and credit card machines. Street crime, robberies, car-jackings, and muggings do occur, particularly along the Boulevard de France (the beach road by the Marina and Novotel Hotels in Cotonou), and on the beaches near hotels frequented by tourists.

17. In conclusion, famous (and sometimes infamous) people from the country include:

  • Alois Dansou, an Olympic swimmer who represented Benin at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
  • Djimon Hounsou, an actor and model born in Cotonou. Hounsou has starred in movies such as Gladiator, Serenity, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
  • Olympe Bhely-Quenum, a writer, journalist, and magazine editor, who has published several works of fiction in French.
  • Florent Couao-Zotti, a writer of comics, plays, and short stories, and editor of a number of satirical magazines.
  • Angélique Kidjo, a singer-songwriter, actress, and activist who is noted for her diverse musical influences and creative music videos. Kidjo has won multiple Grammy Awards, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award, and Amnesty International’s Ambassador Of Conscience Award.

 

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Sources: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]. Image sources: Fanick Atchia [1], Esteve Nimbus [2], Babylas [3].