Benin’s culture is as rich and diverse as its landscape. With strong religious roots to inform most of the traditions, Benin’s culture is certainly one of the most unique and interesting in Africa. Music is of utmost importance in the country. The rhythmic sounds of drumming can be heard at most festivals and religious events. Not just a way to celebrate, music in Benin provides a way to express religious fervor. The country is also home to notable musicians, including the internationally acclaimed singer Angelique Kidjo.
The strong influence of the Voodoo religion is an important part of Benin, which tells of healing and rejuvenating talismans (‘fetishes’). The tradition of oral storytelling is still alive and well, which accounts for the absence of Beninese written literature, even though the culture prides itself in its ancient stories and folklore. As with most clothing in West Africa, the textiles are vibrant and ornately decorated. Each cultural group, be it Fon, Yoruba, or Edo, has unique but recognizable attire, and in most tribes, different colors and patterns are worn for different occasions. Attending a cultural gathering in Benin, especially during a local festival, is a feast for the eyes.
French colonial rule and subsequent close ties with France have left a deep impact on all aspects of cultural life, especially among the educated segments of the population and in the southern cities. Each ethnic group also has its own centuries-old tradition, which itself often mixes with the French influence. These cultural traditions are clustered in two distinct regions, the largely Muslim north and the largely animist and Christian south.
In Cotonou one finds many kinds of commercial enterprises, often with a French flavour, such as restaurants, cafés, and discotheques. Diplomats of foreign governments and many of Benin’s elite live in newer residential sections. There are several movie theatres and several hotels that provide entertainment. Most other towns have modern sections on a smaller scale.
In other sections of the towns, however, tradition dominates cultural life. Extended families live in family compounds in distinct neighbourhoods, where they practice religious rites and celebrate festivals with music and dance. Markets where foodstuffs, clothing, and traditional medicines and arts are sold are important centres of daily life.
Two climatic zones may be distinguished—a southern and a northern. The southern zone has an equatorial type of climate with four seasons—two wet and two dry. The principal rainy season occurs between mid-March and mid-July; the shorter dry season lasts to mid-September; the shorter rainy season lasts to mid-November; and the principal dry season lasts until the rains begin again in March. The amount of rain increases toward the east. Grand-Popo receives only about 32 inches (800 millimetres) a year, whereas Cotonou and Porto-Novo both receive approximately 50 inches. Temperatures are fairly constant, varying between about 72° and 93° F (22° and 34° C), and the relative humidity is often uncomfortably high.
In the northern climatic zone, there are only two seasons, one dry and one rainy. The rainy season lasts from May to September, with most of the rainfall occurring in August. Rainfall amounts to about 53 inches a year in the Atakora Mountains and in central Benin; farther north it diminishes to about 38 inches. In the dry season the harmattan, a hot, dry wind, blows from the northeast from December to March. Temperatures average about 80° F (27° C), but the temperature range varies considerably from day to night. In March, the hottest month, diurnal temperatures may rise to 110° F (43° C).
The original rain forest, which covered most of the southern part of the country, has now largely been cleared, except near the rivers. In its place, many oil palms and rônier palms have been planted and food crops are cultivated. North of Abomey the vegetation is an intermixture of forest and savanna (grassy parkland), giving way farther north to savanna. Apart from the oil and rônier palms, trees include coconut palms, kapok, mahogany, and ebony.
In the extreme north is the “W” National Park (1,938 square miles), which extends into Burkina Faso and Niger. Its varied animal life includes elephants, leopards, lions, antelope, monkeys, wild pigs, crocodiles, and buffalo. There are many species of snakes, including pythons and puff adders. Birds include guinea fowl, wild duck, and partridge, as well as many tropical species. The Pendjari National Park (1,062 square miles) borders on Burkina Faso.
French is the official language and the language of instruction, but each ethnic group has its own language, which is also spoken. Most adults living in the various ethnic communities also speak the dominant language of each region. The most widely spoken languages are Fon and Gen (Mina), members of the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo family of African languages; Bariba, a member of the Gur branch of the Niger-Congo family; Yoruba, one of a small group of languages that constitute the Yoruboid cluster of the Defoid subbranch of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo family; and Dendi, one of the Songhai languages, which are generally assumed to constitute the primary branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.
Christian missions have been active in the coastal region since the 16th century, and about two-fifths of the total population is Christian; of the Christians, about three-fifths are Roman Catholic, while the remainder includes small groups of Methodist, Baptist, and independent Christian denominations. Islam has adherents in the north and southeast; about one-fourth of the total population is Muslim, nearly all of whom are Sunni. Some one-fourth of the population adheres to traditional beliefs, including vodun (vodou or voodoo), which originated in the area of western Africa that includes what is now known as Benin and was brought to the Caribbean and the Americas by Africans enslaved during the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th–19th centuries. In addition, many adherents of Christianity and Islam also include some elements of traditional beliefs in their practices. In the south, animist religions, which include fetishes (objects regarded with awe as the embodiment of a powerful spirit) for which Benin is renowned, retain their traditional strength.
There are two paved, mostly two-lane, road networks. One runs parallel to the coast of the Gulf of Guinea from the Togolese border, through Cotonou and near Porto-Novo, to the Nigerian border. The other road runs north from Cotonou, near Abomey and Dassa, to Parakou in the north. Roads from Parakou to Niger’s border and from near Abomey to Burkina Faso’s border are unpaved and are barely passable in the rainy season.
There is a railroad from Cotonou to Parakou. Another railroad, parallel to the coast, does not extend to either the Togolese or the Nigerian border.
Interconnected coastal lagoons are navigable by small craft known as pirogues. The Ouémé, Couffo, and Mono rivers are navigable by small boats for several dozen miles. The country’s only port is at Cotonou. An international airport in Cotonou links Benin with other countries of Africa and with Europe. There is also limited domestic airline service.
Health and welfare:
Benin has a national health care system that maintains hospitals in Cotonou, Porto-Novo, Parakou, Abomey, Ouidah, and Natitingou, in addition to medical dispensaries, maternity centres, and other small, specialized health care facilities in these and smaller towns. Financial aid from international organizations provides resources to compensate for a shortage of medical personnel and medications. Malaria is a health concern, especially for young children. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in Benin is well below the average for sub-Saharan Africa but is similar to or lower than that of neighbouring countries.
Currency: West-African Franc
Population: 11 million
Official languages: French