People and languages
There are over 50 distinct groups of peoples in Benin, and each speaks a different language or dialect. The most widely spoken language is Fon, which originates in Abomey, the old capitol of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Fon is spoken throughout the south and central parts of Benin. The Fon people are known to be assertive and industrious, traits that have helped them to find work in all corners of the country. Other languages that you may come across include Adjara spoken in the Mono (Eastern) region, Mina (commonly spoken in Grand Popo and Togo) Nagot (a dialect of Yoruba in Nigeria) spoken in the Western part of the country, Dendi, Ditamari, and Peuhl in the North, among many others.
French is the official language of Bénin, and will get you around pretty well in cities. People who are educated speak French well, other’s just speak enough to buy and sell. English is not widely spoken.
Take the time to learn a few words in the local language! People will love you for it.
The main thing to eat is pate and akassa, both made from cornmeal. Pate has a mild taste and is usually served hot. Akassa is often served room temperature, and is wrapped in leaves. Akassa has a stronger taste and is slightly gelatinous. Both are eaten with the right hand only and used to scoop up sauce that is usually made from peanut oil, ground up hot peppers and ground tomatoes. For protein, fish is common in the south and fried tofu-like cheese called wagassi or wangash in the north. My favorite thing to eat is abobo (beans). Eat them sprinkled with gari ( a coarse flour made from cassava root) and drizzled with sauce or raw palm oil. Delicious!
A tasty treat is igname pile or pounded yam. It is always interesting to watch women as they pound the yam, a huge tuber vegetable, in a hollowed out tree stump. THUMP thump thump, THUMP thump thump, rhythms form when they pound. The pounded yam is slightly sweet and is eaten with sauce d’arachide (peanut sauce), wangash, or guinea fowl.
Breakfast is usually bouille a soup made of corn flour sprinkled with peanuts and sugar.
For snacks there are beignets (doughnut-like lumps of fried dough), fried patates douce (sweet potatoes), fried ignames (yams), and boiled manioc (cassava root) and plantains in hot sauce. Often times you can get boiled peanuts, tapioca (not quite like America’s tapioca though). Of course, there is seasonal fresh fruit, such as pineapples, papayas, guavas, oranges, and mangoes. If you are in a city, women will circulate with fruit stacked in trays on their heads. You can wave the woman over, and have her cut and peel the fruit into a bag for you. Yum.
In bigger cities there are omelet stands on almost every corner, as well as stands that sell the regional specialties, and of course, la pate. Stop in a buvette for a drink. Usually you can get Coca (coke) Fizzy (the local fruit soda-good!) Beninoise (the local beer) and a variety of other beverages that may or may not be cold.
Most of the food is sold from little booths on the side of the road. The seller will usually have her own tin dishes for your food, and a cunning set-up of basins to rinse the dishes. There usually is a bench for you to sit at while you eat. Usually you tell the woman how much food you want (300 francs, 400 francs) and she will plop the requested amount on the plate. If you feel she is shortchanging you, feel free to ask for more – politely, of course. Sometimes women will carry food on their heads. They will put the requested amount into will put it into a black plastic saché (bag), or into your own bowl.
A few words of caution:
1) Be careful with what you eat! Only eat hot foods that haven’t been sitting out for long. Food poisoning is a common ailment for travelers that can be prevented with care. Be especially careful with things sold from the top of people’s heads, which is often quite old.
2) Never, ever eat with your left hand. It will truly disgust people if you do. In fact, try to avoid even giving money to people with your left hand, which is your unclean hand.
Dress is really important for West Africans. You will see many people in dirty rags because they are extremely poor. You, however, are not extremely poor, but a relatively rich westerner. Take care in your appearance, as it shows that you respect the people of Bénin. Take some time to get some pretty Beninese fabric and have a tailor make you a couple traditional outfits (bubus and bombas). It is cheap, and comfortable.
In general, men should wear trousers (not shorts), and a clean shirt. T-shirts are hot and don’t dry well. Translation: you will be wet with your own sweat all day if you wear a t-shirt. I recommend a loose woven button-down shirt with short sleeves. Women ideally will wear skirts that are past their knees and a modest shirt with short sleeves. Women should never show off their upper legs, which are considered a very sexual part of the body.
Loose, pre-made clothes are cheap and beautiful, found at any market. There is no excuse to look like a slob!
Modes of transportation
Traveling in Bénin is the most dangerous thing that you’ll do while there. I can’t overestimate this enough. Be careful, and ask for help if you don’t know how to get to where you want to be, or if you don’t know what the price should be! People really are nice and helpful. Always figure out what the correct price is (ask a few people who are not going to be making profit from the transaction), and agree upon a price with the driver before entering any vehicle.
There are really only 3 paved roads in Benin. Two that run north-south, one that runs across the bottom of the country from Togo to Nigeria. The rest of the roads are dirt, in ill-condition and can be very dangerous during the rainy season (summer).
Gas is fun. There are not really any gas stations, especially in the south. Most gas in the south is smuggled from Nigeria and sold in glass bottles at the side of the road. Inevitably the person selling the gas is a young child or a pregnant woman. Brace yourselves.
Don’t be upset if you are stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire or broken down car for hours at a time. It is all part of the experience. Time is not money here!
The word zemidjan means get me there fast in Fon. Zemidjans are motorcycle taxis. They are very fast, very convenient, very unreliable, and very dangerous. Peace Corps volunteers must wear a helmet when they ride zemidjans. It is the easiest, if not only way to get around in the country if you don’t have your own mode of transportation.
A zemidjan driver is a kèkèno (“kèkè” means bike in Fon, “no” means person). Kèkènos usually wear short sleeved button down shirts with a number on the back. In Cotonou, kèkènos wear yellow shirts, in Porto Novo, red, in Grand Popo green, etc.
If you want to ride a zemidjan, look for a driver with no passenger on the backand yell “kèkèno!” Or make a waving gesture at him (open and close your hand like you are waving bye-bye to a baby. This means “come here” in the Beninese cultures). Before you get on, you should agree upon a price. Ask around before hand to know what the price should be. As a yovo or foreigner, you will have to pay more than a Beninese. You also make more than them, so buck up and don’t be an asshole about it. In general, you should discuss the price with the kèkèno, and not accept the first one. One of the fun things about riding a zemidjan is arguing for the price you want. Just don’t be a jerk!
Always get up on the left side of the motorcycle, as there is a hot exhaust pipe on the right side that will burn you. While on the bike, hold onto the bar at the back of the seat-not onto the driver! There should be a place for your feet, ask the driver for help if you can’t find it.
Some drivers are maniacs. If you are scared, close your eyes. Well, probably don’t do that or you’ll fall off. But you can tell him to slow down: doucement.
Mostly you will ride zemidjans within cities. Sometimes though in more rural areas a zemidjan will be used to travel longer distances, especially if you don’t want to wait for a bush taxi to fill up-which will take hours. In this case, it is important to glance over the bike and make sure it seems like it will run that far.
Bush taxis are usually used to go between cities. You may be able to negotiate the price, it is always good to at least ask before getting in. They may want to charge more if you have a lot of baggage.
There are two ways to get a bush taxi. In some towns there will be a gare (taxi station) that you need to go to. In others, you stand on the side of the road and try to flag down a passing car. Usually there are men there to help you. These men are paid by taxi drivers to find them passengers. It is not necessary to pay them.
Bush taxis are crammed full of people. Literally there will sometimes be a passenger sharing the driver’s seat with the chauffeur (driver). I’d recommend that you sit in the middle part of the back seat, since it is the safest. Sitting in the front is scary as hell, especially if you are on a goudron (highway). It’s asking for death. Although the seats by the door can be appealing (fresh air!) they too are scary. Sometimes the door pops open. Also if the car rolls over you are a goner.
Places to go
Cotonou is the economic capitol of Bénin. This is where the international airport is located. It also is where the embassies, banks, and best hotels are. It is a big, smelly, exciting African city.
Cotonou is divided into several quartièrs (quarters). Here are a few that may be useful to you.
I’d advise any visitor to first stop bye the Peace Corps office to talk to current PCVs about more updated information on places to go. It is located in quartièr Jonquet, which is the red light district. There are parties all night long here in the local buvettes. Be careful here at night though, I know of several people who were robbed in Jonquet.
Quartièr Hai Vive is a fun place to visit. This is where a lot of ex-patriots hang out. There is a nice yovo restaurant called Livingstone’s if you want to meet other westerners. It is quite cher (expensive) though. Near Livingstone’s you can find some men from Niger who sell silver jewelry and little leather boxes. Be cautious, you have to bargain hard to get an OK price. It’s not all real silver also. There are a couple of places to stay here too.
Quartièr Ganhi is where to go to exchange money. Many people I know exchange money illegally. This is a little risky though. Best to stick with Ecobank, a big West African bank that will give you an OK rate. Expect to stand in line for a long time, and you’ll need a passport. You will need to bring money to exchange and not an ATM card, because as of 2003 there were no places that accepted ATM cards. There also is a nice little marché (market) in this area where you can get raw food as well as clothes and cheap African bootleg CDs. Check out some of the newest music! They will play the CD for you right there so you know that it works and that you like it. As with everything, the price is negotiable.
There are many places to stay in Cotonou, in every price range. Some of them are pretty disreputable, so again, I’d advise you to hunt down some current Peace Corps volunteers and find out where they stay. One place that I can full heartedly recommend is hotel du Lac which is where Peace Corps volunteers splurge to stay at. It costs about $50 per night, has AC, hot water, a big pool…
There is a nice little Centre Artisanal (artisan center) where you can buy touristy things like beads, jewelry, fabric, woodcarvings, drums.These things are not cheap though.
No trip to Cotonou is complete without a visit to Dantokpa the huge marche located in the center of town. You can find anything and everything that you could ever imagine there. Take it slow, and just ignore the guys who offer tours (they will try to rip you off). There is a really interesting Voudoun (voodoo) section with creepy dried animals, charms, snakes, etc. I’ve found the men there to be really friendly and interesting. They are willing to answer any respectful questions and explain their beliefs. There also is an awesome fabric selection, especially in the cavernous three story building that sells only fabric. There is hand woven and dyed things, wax prints, fabric from India, fabric in every imaginable print and price range. Fabric is pretty expensive, so don’t expect the price to go down all that much. I find Dantokpa to be exhausting and overwhelming. People are constantly grabbing you and yelling at you and trying to get your attention and to buy what they are selling. I’d advise you to make several short trips there, preferably early in the morning when it is cool, rather than one long trip.
In a lagoon near Cotonou is a town on stilts that was founded in the middle of a lake by escaped slaves 300 years ago. Their descendents still live in stilted houses, fishing and now selling things to tourists. And it is very touristy, one of the first things that you see in the town is a giant sign for Coca cola. Still, it is a nice excursion. You’ll need to take a taxi and then a boat to get there.
Porto Novo is the official capitol of Bénin. It is a beautiful town, filled with the sleepy ruins of French Colonial buildings, painted in peeling pastels. There isn’t much to do here, but wander around and look about.
There is a marché selling the usual things. There are a couple of old ladies selling authentic beads (not touristy necklaces) and voudoun things. Also fabric, food, etc. Near the Marché is a large Mosqué (mosque) that is painted in brilliant, chipping colors. Porto Novo has the largest Muslim population in the south. Finally, there is an interesting school, Lycée Benhazin that is a Porto Novo landmark. It is one of the biggest schools in the country, and is quite picturesque.
Warning: People tend to be very aggressive in Porto Novo. They shout and yell and may try to grab you bags in order to get your attention, or to get you to be their customer. Be aggressive back! Any look of indecision and you are in trouble.
If you are crazy, you can continue onto Nigeria from Porto Novo, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a death wish.
To get there take a bush taxi from Dantokpa in Cotonou. Taxis are easy to get and should be pretty cheap.
Garnd Popo is a town on the beach within spitting distance of the Togo border. It is known for it’s resorts and its voudoun traditions.
Along to highway on your way to Grand Popo you will notice huts with little white flags flying over them. These are where voudoun practitioners are living and selling their services. The Grand Popo marché has a nice little selection of voudoun artifacts too. Check out the twin dolls, dolls in which the soul of a dead twin can live. Every January there is a huge voudoun festival that is amazing.
There basically are two nice places to stay here. The Auberge is a little older, and touch more expensive. It has nice rooms for a variety of prices. The restaurant it awesome, but not cheap. Awalé Plage is newer and for a youger set of people. It has a bar on the beach! Again, not cheap. Both places have chairs and shaded areas on the beach, as well as pools. As tempting as the water is, beware, there is a fierce riptide and people die every year.
Besides relaxing on the beach there isn’t much to do. My favorite thing to do in Grand Popo is simply to walk along the beach and watch the local fishermen as they tinker with their pirogues and fix their nets.
Check out the Finnish Institute (Finnish, of all places!) if you want to meet other westerners. Located near the Auberge.
The country of Togo (and Ghana just beyond!) is just a hop, skip and a jump (and an insanely expensive Visa) away from here!
To get there take a taxi from the Boulevard St. Michel in Cotonou.
Ouidah was the center of the slave trade in Bénin, and is currently another voudoun hotspot.
At one point there existed five slave forts from five different European nations. Makes you proud to be a yovo. Only one slave fort is still standing, a former Portuguese fort that is now a museum. It is interesting to see the fort and learn a bit of its history. I especially like the part where it shows the influence that the Beninese culture has had on the cultures of Brazil and Haiti. From the fort, make sure to take a tour of the Rue des Esclaves (slave walk). You can find a tour guide at the fort who should take to the sites of the other forts, and along the rout that slaves took to the beach, where the ships awaited them. There is a huge monument to the millions of Beninese lost to the slave trade on the Ouidah beach.
Le Temple de Pythons (python temple) is a pretty cool tourist trap. You pay to get in and look at the pythons which are sacred to some voudoun sects. The best part is getting to hold one of the sacred pythons around your neck. Make sure to sell out the extra money to be able to take pictures to send home!
Get to Ouidah by taking a Bush Taxi from the Boulevard St. Michel in Cotonou.
A slower paced, dusty northern town, surrounded by hills. There is not much to do in Natti, but it is a good starting place to launch excursions.
There are several cascades (waterfalls) near Natti. You can talk to the zemidjan drivers there and negotiate for them to bring you to the falls and back. Do not try to negotiat for the prices in Natti! They usually give you a fair price in the beginning.
Nattitingou is near Parc Pendjari (the animal park) where you can go on a safari. If you are traveling in a group, you can rent an entire taxi to do this. Otherwise, I’d recommend that you go through a company that will fill a car up for you. You can go for an overnight and say at the hotel there or just go for the day. Either way, make sure to bring lots snacks, since the food there will be scarce and expensive. Adjust your expectations: this is West Africa (not East Africa with its abundant animals). You can expect to see lots of crocodiles, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, hippos and various gazelles. If you are lucky you will run across lions and elephants. I’m talking about people sitting squished in a car for hours looking at distant specks on the horizon. I didn’t even bother to take a picture. Still, it was fun.
In the evenings make sure to check out the local street vendor cuisine. Do not leave Nattitingou without having a big helping of igname pile washed down by a Beninoise (see the food section).
Natitingou can also launch you into your next country: Burkina Faso (and Mali just beyond that)!
To get there, take a bush taxi from Dantokpa in Cotonou. It will take all day by taxi, and is not cheap. You can expect to be a dusty mess by the time you get there.
Abomey is the old capitol of Dahomey. The main thing to do here is go on a tour of the kings of Dahomey’s palaces. It is pretty interesting, only one has been restored. There is a museum and an awesome craft center attached. Make sure to buy some traditional appliqué wall hangings here in bright colors.
To get here, take a Bush taxi from St. Michel in Cotonou to Comé, then from Comé to Abomey.
Doucement: Careful, sorry, slow down…this is a kind of catch-all word
Kèkèno: Motorcycle-taxi driver
Voudoun: Voudoun is a widely practiced animist religion that originated in Bénin and spread with slavery to the Americas, particularly Haiti and Brazil.
Yovo: It literally means white, can be applied to all non-Beninese. Children like to sing this song: :”Yovo, yovo, bonsoir, ça va bien? Merci!” which is pretty annoying.
Wa: Come! Also can be a gesture that means the same (come): open and close your hand like you are waving bye-bye to a baby.