Facts About Home of Voodoo: The Republic of Benin

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The Republic of Benin is a tiny little West African nation, lying between Togo and Nigeria. To the north Benin shares a boundary with Burkina Faso and Niger. The country is the site of the Dahomey Kingdom that flourished from the 1600’s to the 1800’s. The country is named for the Bight of Benin and not after the historical kingdom of Benin that now lies in Nigeria.

The country has a rich cultural history, steeped in mythology, warfare, magic and ritual. Legends abound. King Abodohoue turned himself into an egret and flew all over searching for a haven from the enslaving Dahomey kings. Finding the ideal spot in the centre of Lake Nakoue, he changed into a crocodile and convinced the other crocodiles to help him rebuild his village. The crocodile built village Ganvie, floats in the Lake creating a surreal spectacle earmarked as a visiting spot for tourists.

Benin is fast developing as a tourist destination. Good roads, a variety of accommodation facilities and ecotourism options, give Benin an edge over its neighbours. The Pendjari National Park is home to an abundance of wild life including lions, cheetahs, elephants and hippos.

FACT 1: The Dahomey Kingdom was a despotic, military kingdom. It was a centre for the slave trade that thrived along the coast. The slave trade was so extensive in the area that the Europeans called the area the Slave Coast.

FACT 2: The abolishing of slavery in Europe led to the decline of the Slave trade along the Slave Coast. The very countries that had initiated and promoted the slave trade, the English, the Dutch and the French were now enforcing a ban on the trade. The Dahomey King Gezo was unwilling to give up his share of the lucrative trade. A British naval blockade eventually forced him to agree to stop the export of slaves. African kingdoms like Dahomey declined with the decline of the slave trade. This led to the European countries scrambling to extend their sphere of influence in the region.

FACT 4: The French established their dominance over the Dahomey kingdom was named the territory Benin. In 1894 the French re named it Dahomey. In 1904, it became part of the Federation of French West Africa, under the French Governor General in Senegal.

FACT 5: On August 1, 1960, Dahomey became an independent state. After a series of military coups, Major Mathieu Kerekou seized power in 1972. He pursued a Marxist Leninist ideology and instituted nationalization and a planned economy. In 1975 the country was renamed the Republic of Benin.

FACT 6: With the end of the Cold War, Kerekou abandoned the Marxist Leninist ideology and called elections in 1991. He lost and Nicephore Segolo became the President of the Republic. In African history this election marks the smoothest transfer of power from a military dictator to an elected representative.

FACT 7: The Republic of Benin is made up of many different ethnic groups, speaking different languages. The official language is French.

FACT 8: Many different religions are practices in Benin. 27% of the inhabitants are Roman Catholic, 24% practice Islam. Voodoo, also called vodun or vodoun, originated in Benin and was carried to the Caribbean and the Americas by the slaves. 17% of the people adhere to this practice that has been recently recognised as a religion in Benin. Animism, the worship of objects (fetishes) thought to embody powerful spirits, is widely practised.

FACT 9: The Annual Vodoun Fest near the Point of No Return on Ouidah Beach attracts thousands of adherents from all over Benin. The Fest is also becoming a tourist destination. Ouidah is the historic centre of Vodoun worship. The Fest starts with the Vodoun chief slaughters a goat to appease the spirits. The devotees then come to the chief to be blessed. The Fest is a religious as well as cultural fest, with singing, dancing, beating drums, chanting and free flowing gin.

FACT 10: At Abomey, the Historical Museum has a collection of bas relief works depict the history of the Dahomey Kingdom. A throne mounted on human skulls is testimony to the ruthless monarchy who believed that human sacrifice appeased the gods.

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