Benin is divided into kingdoms – many villages still have kings, chiefs and palaces. Your guide may be able to request an audience with a king, where you can have an informal chat to find out about the duties of a modern-day Beninese monarch and the role he plays in the community. These important figureheads are highly venerated – local people turn to their king to resolve disputes, and a meeting is never guaranteed.
Home to some of the last remaining big game in West Africa, this national park shelters elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and hippos in its savannah and forest. The park is part of a larger protected area which extends across the Pendjari River into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso – conserving epic migration routes so that these rare species may continue to thrive.
The Somba people live in Togo and northern Benin, and still hold traditional, animist beliefs. Their distinctive villages are made up of two-storey, clay buildings with thatched turrets called tatas – where the Somba sleep, store grain and shelter cattle. The castle or fortresses-like structures may have evolved to protect the Somba from slave raids by Dahomey warriors in the 1700s.
You’d be forgiven for not having a clue where to start when it comes to local dishes (ever seen a Beninese restaurant?) but the combination of fresh Beninese produce and French colonial influence has produced a number of hearty, filling dishes, in which rich sauces play a key role. Seek out seafood on the coast and millet couscous in the north, with thick tomato, hot chilli and shrimp sauces.
Benin is the birthplace of this most mysterious of religions, and it exists here in its purest form. Ouidah’s annual festival draws followers who transform into their chosen God, adopting their characteristics. The Zangbeto look like giant, walking grass skirts, while the Egungun – the most powerful – are covered entirely in colourful patchwork. There are ritual sacrifices, plus dancing, drinking and the constant beat of drums.
In the 1600s, the Tofinu were fleeing from the Dahomey, who wanted to sell them into slavery. The Dahomey’s beliefs prevented them from entering the water, so the Tofinu built a stilted village in Nokoué Lake. Today, 20,000 people live here, and while it may not merit the nickname “Venice of Africa”, it is fascinating to see the fishermen and floating markets – as well as a post office, bank and mosque – a true aquatic city.
A two week trip is plenty of time to extend your travels in West Africa by exploring Togo and Ghana. Many trips start and end in Ghana’s capital, Accra, as the flight connections are simpler – then continue through Togo and into Benin, looping round and heading back to Accra. You’ll experience mountains and coast, desert and city, Francophone and Anglophone nations.
Famous for being a major slave port and the birthplace of voodoo, Ouidah has a number of attractions which are both significant and unsettling. There is the Fetish Market; the Sacred Forest of Kpasse, complete with statues of gods and sacrifices; and the Temple of Sacred Pythons, worshipped by locals. There is also the Door of No Return – which marks the spot where slaves left Africa for the New World.
There are many exceedingly photogenic parts of Benin – including Lake Ganvié– where local people are simply going about their daily business and would rather not have a camera pointed at them. If you can strike up a conversation, or purchase something from a local trader without taking a picture of them – great. If not, put the lens cap on and just enjoy the moment.
Inevitably, there will be the odd, dodgy voodoo practitioner quite happy to put on a show in order to part gullible tourists from their cash. Fortunately, travelling on an organised tour with guides who are either from or have spent plenty of time in the area means you’ll be sure to witness authentic rituals – and local people will be more comfortable with your presence.
These masked men in trances, who represent the souls of the dead, are some of the most powerful voodoo figures. Anyone touching them – even accidentally, even brushing past their colourful robes – will die, as must the Egungun. Some say all women present must die too – although other beliefs state that women cannot attend these ceremonies – which may come as a relief…
You will encounter poverty in Benin. However, indiscriminately handing out clothing, money or – worse – sweets to children is not the way to resolve this. If you want to donate, speak to your travel company or tour leader to learn what’s needed, shop locally to support traders, and donate to head teachers or village elders who can distribute items fairly, and avoid westerners being seen as walking wallets.