Culture in Benin

Two things have influenced Benin’s culture more than anything else: voodoo and slavery. Some 60 percent of Beninese follow the voodoo religion – with many cultural aspects and religious syncretism spilling over into other aspects of culture as well. As a tourist in Benin, it is impossible to avoid the herbal medicines and creepy fetishes sold in the markets, the roadside shrines, the statues of voodoo gods and the festivals and ceremonies that take place, particularly around Ouidah, voodoo’s spiritual home.
The West African slave trade may have ceased many centuries ago, but its legacy can be observed today in unexpected ways. As well as the slave forts and chilling Door of No Return, there is a town that stands in the middle of a lake, and the impressive, fortress-like compounds of the Somba people – both of which were created as a way to defend the tribes against kidnap by slave raiders. Here are a few of our top ways to experience culture in Benin.

Explore the spirit of voodoo

Forget about voodoo dolls. This most enigmatic of religions originated in Benin, and while versions of it were exported across the Atlantic along with the slaves, most notably to Haiti and Louisiana, it is still found in its purest form in Benin, where it is more commonly called vodun or vodoun. Voodoo penetrates much of Beninese daily life. Visitors to markets will reveal fetish stalls, with animal fetuses and skeletons – as well as dead animals which have been prepared for rituals. Fetishes are literally objects which are believed to have innate powers and connections with the spirit world. As well as the animal fetishes, they can take the form of shrines – places where animals are sacrificed, wooden stakes are hammered and people make requests to the spirits, sometimes via a the chief of the shrine. Small fetishes like this exist across Benin, in backyards and compounds, but the most famous is the Dankoli shrine – a mound of festering blood, guts, bones and feathers which is believed to be the most powerful of all. Witnessing a sacrifice here – usually of a chicken, sometimes a goat – is not for the faint hearted. Rum is spat onto the fetish, cash is left to ensure a response – requests are usually granted within a year. But be careful of making a request of your own – if your wish is granted, you must thank the gods by making a sacrifice; they won’t be pleased if you don’t.
Ouidah is the centre of voodoo, and as well as the markets, you will find the Python Temple, inhabited by around 60 sacred snakes, and the Kpasse Sacred Forest, filled with statues of voodoo gods as well as a huge iroko tree – which it is believed was once the King Kpasse, who fled into the forest from the invading Fon tribe, and turned into a tree.

Get festive

The Vodoun Festival takes place in Ouidah every year on 10th January, and is the hugest event in the voodoo calendar. It 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 pounding of drums.
Jim O’Brien, from our supplier Native Eye Travel, explains: “Ouidah’s voodoo festival is really quite spectacular. It’s become slightly touristy over the last few years but it’s still worth seeing. All the voodoo churches come down. People dress up as Gods and they believe that they become that god during that time. So you get a particular sect of voodoo and they take on the characteristics and personality of that God. Some of the costumes are very, very elaborate; there’s one group called the Zangbeto which dress in really colourful straw skirts which cover their entire bodies, so they actually just appear to be an entire cone of straw running around. You have another group called the Egungun. In pre-colonial times they performed the function of a police force almost, in terms of keeping things in order, because people are absolutely terrified of them – if you touch one of them then you die! It’s quite something to see.”

Stay in a stilted town

In the middle of Lake Nokoué in southern Benin, an entire town called Ganvie can be found, consisting of stilted, bamboo houses, sheltering some 20,000 residents. This unusual set up was created around four centuries ago, when the Tofinu people fled from the Fon tribe of the Dahomey Kingdom, who were out to capture people to sell into slavery. Knowing the Fon’s traditional taboos surrounding water and those who lived in it, the Tofinu – who had no such qualms – headed into the lake and set up homes here, and thus evaded capture.
Today’s Ganvians get around in dugout canoes, called pirogues. The main industry is, unsurprisingly, fishing, but you will also see little floating gardens where produce is grown, and within the town there is a school, church, little shops, and traders selling wares from their pirogues. There is also a hotel and restaurant catering to the growing number of tourists who wish to discover a most unusual lifestyle in the middle of this African Lake.

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Somba tatas

In the arid landscapes of northern Benin live the Somba people – also known as the Batammariba. They live in the areas around Natititingou, and over the border in Togo where they are known as the Taberma. Until the 1990s, the Somba were almost entirely cut off from the outside world, wearing traditional dress, hunting, herding and practising their own beliefs. Today, their lifestyles remain very traditional – but tourists are drawn to this remote region to see the Somba’s incredible fortress-like homes, known as tatas.
Like the Tofinu, the Somba created this extraordinary architecture in response to the slave raids. The tatas are compounds ringed with a mud wall some three storeys high, which contains tower-like granaries. Within the walls, tall, cylindrical homes are built over two or three floors, with livestock kept in the ground floors, and a thatched roof on top. The tatas are not clustered together; when a son wants to marry, his father will fire an arrow and the son will begin to construct his own mud brick tata on the spot where the arrow lands. Traditionally, this would have been a form of protection from the invaders and slave raiders.

The architecture of the returned slaves

Visitors to Benin’s capital, Porto-Novo, will notice something rather unusual about the architecture. In some streets, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Brazil, thanks to the strangely Portuguese-colonial architecture of the mansions. In fact, many Afro-Brazilian slaves returned here from Salvador de Bahia, and along the Nigerian coast, following emancipation, and brought with them the architectural style of their new homeland, along with South American culinary influences which can still be tasted in Benin today. Interestingly, not only does the city have a Portuguese name, but you may hear Portuguese spoken on the streets by the descendants of these slaves.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Joachim Huber] [Dancing: Native Eye] [Voodoo festival: Native Eye] [Voodoo : Native Eye] [Canoes: Photo] [Somba village : Dan Sloan]