Why Choose Benin for African Culture?
Benin is a long and narrow country wedged between Nigeria to the east, Togo to the west, and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. Operators often sell Benin as a 12-day package together with Ghana and Togo, but Benin is well worth visiting on its own. The Beninese are hospitable people, and travel is, for the most part, laid back and easy.
Cotonou & Day trips
Most journeys begin in Cotonou, Benin's largest city and de facto capital. Cotonou has an enviable location on the Atlantic Ocean with miles and miles of beach which on weekends are crowded with local families. Cotonou's Dantokpa Market is one of the largest in West Africa. Accessible from Cotonou on day trips are Ganvie, where 12,000 fishermen live in stilt villages on Lake Nokoue; Ouidah, a former slaving post and considered the birthplace of voodoo; and Porto Novo, Benin's official capital, another former slave post, city-state of a Yoruba Kingdom based in Nigeria, and where many former slaves settled when they returned from Brazil after their emancipation. Porto Novo means "New Port" in Portuguese. One of the great sights in Port Novo is the multi-colored Brazilian mosque. Another is the costumed voodoo figures with their roots in Yoruba culture known as the "Guardians of the Night." Highly revered and serving as an unofficial police force, these spirits were originally created to scare enemies away. Today they still wander Port Novo streets before returning to their temple where entrance is prohibited.
Abomey Palace & Pendjari National Park
In Northern Benin, Abomey Palace is a reminder of the powerful, Fon-speaking Dahomey Kings whose reign flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries and who were enemies of Porto-Novo's Yoruba. Also in the north is the Atacora Mountains, where a minority of Somba people continue to live in distinctive tall castles of mud which functioned in the past to keep out intruders. Pendjari and W Regional National Parks are located in the far north of the country. Although Pendjari National Park is an exceptionally scenic park, it does not provide the wildlife experience of Eastern and Southern African parks.
A week to ten days allows you an in depth look at Benin, which would also include as far north as Natitingou and Pendjari National Park. If you want to base yourself in Cotonou and see the closer sights of Ganvie, Ouidah, Porto Novo and Abomey then consider a five day stay.
On January 11 every year, Benin celebrates its Voodoo Festival. One of the best places to observe the festival is in Ouidah, a town an hour's drive from Cotonou. CNN has called this festival one of Africa's top five festivals not to be missed. MTT advises two to three nights in Ouidah, beginning on January 10, the day preceding the festival. There are private celebrations happening in and around town and you can seek permission to attend them. Most of Ouidah's accommodations become fully booked the night of January 11. Advance planning is essential.
Voodoo originated in Haiti during French colonial times, but its foundations are the tribal religions of West Africa which incorporated ancestor worship, singing, dancing, drumming, and spirit possession. These ancient beliefs were brought to Haiti by slaves in the seventeenth century who were captured mainly from the Dahomey Kingdom. The word 'voodoo' derives from the word 'vodu' in the Dahomey language of Fon and means "spirit." In Haiti, the slaves created a new religion which combined West African beliefs with Haiti's indigenous beliefs and it is this colorful mélange of ritualistic spectacles that they brought back to Africa and which forms the core of voodoo today.