Benin, What An Excellent Destination I Stumbled Upon

This is another country I am sure you are asking where and why…

Benin is a French speaking country (+54 other languages…other main ones are Fon, Yom & Yoruba…um ranked 7 for most languages in world) in West Africa, a tiny one just before the African continent turns to go South, or if you must it is next to Nigeria and also shares land borders with Togo, Burkina Faso and a bit of Niger too….of which I am almost positive even less people know about these ones. It is on a beautiful piece of a swift ocean current called the Gulf of Guinea…indeed far from the actual country of Guinea which oddly doesn´t even touch the body of water with it´s own name!

I chose this country as my second stop for learning French and arrived December 1, 2019 with a surprise (for me) stopover in Mali….ha ha I forgot to look at the ticket and I remembered only when we got closer to earth …humm I guess I remember my ticket might have had a stopover…turns out we did and to Mali…not the safest of places as I looked out the plane and saw tons of UN planes (not a great sign). I planned to stay two weeks in Cotonou (Cotton eww) and then try to make my way by land to Ghana to visit a friend (I didn´t have a visa yet). I decided to try a different kind of French lessons here. I went to the Institut Francais thinking a class would be a great change…unfortunately classes weren´t an option due to the end of the year/exam period. I signed up for private lessons instead…8 hours for the week and learned quite a bit the first few days but then felt it was a waste of time and money by the end of the week thus decided to go see the country instead. French in Benin sounded more formal to me then in Senegal and I enjoyed this change…and no I don’t just mean at the Institut…even mototaxi drivers were formal!

First impressions of Benin (Ben EE N) was that it felt more developed then Senegal and its surrounding region, the roads felt like a mix between Vietnam and Uganda with all the motorbikes, I wasn´t as thrilled with traditional food, the air seemed more polluted (motorbikes…), I was back to a hot and humid climate (Senegal´s originally hot climate was now winter – nice and cool) and the sea is beautiful but dangerous for a swim (very strong currents).

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Benin felt more developed only because sidewalks seemed to be everywhere and many streets were being newly paved (even in smaller cities). Each country in West Africa is still underdeveloped but the word developed changes by country…some have more developed roads others have malls and big buildings while others are more advanced in another way…it really is all relative in the end to how you perceive it because there is still tons of poverty (if not visible, it´s hidden). Here besides sidewalks ha ha there were nice tour buses to travel to the touristy sites including plenty of nicely paved roads to use them on and believe me there are plenty in this tiny country! You can tell Benin has a focus on tourism…as it should!

Traditional food took me some time to get used to and after almost two weeks I found myself wanting Western food instead which I never do on a trip but here I was majorly over the food. I did find that once I took a break and went back to trying it I actually had missed the flavors and way of eating. More so in Benin then Senegal you ate with your hands which I actually love…just feels cleaner (you always wash before and after eating even on the roadside stands) and it´s just easier. My favorite food was the twice boiled cheese…the best cheese I have ever had…then came the garbanzo beans with rice (the red sauce is delish!) and finally the staple of spaghetti with egg at the cafeterias….yumm. For me it was never easy to find a good spot to eat or it was hard to find something different to try. The most common plate was Fufu, which is usually yam mashed up then formed into a circle and paired with a peanut or sesame soup and a piece of meat (or the yummy cheese…you could also pay more for extra…many do). If there is one thing about the food in Benin, it was always flavorful just maybe not the breakfast (unless you added tons of sugar)….beignets (small fried donuts) were quite popular.

While I was studying I had one day off due to exam scheduling which I used to go see the capital of Porto Novo about 2 hours away (I took a minibus near the huge market). This day trip is likely what sparked my interest in seeing more of the country as the history captured my attention and further research after sparked my interest.  The City of Cotonou where I stayed is the economic hub, a busy, primarily motorbike riding city with big markets, beaches and lots of commercial areas of various social statuses whereas Porto Novo is inland a bit, tiny and quaint. Besides it’s proximity I chose to go here for architecture…some Afro Brazilian architecture and the history that came along with it.

If you are like me you have never heard of Afro Brazilian so I will educate you. Although the name suggests origin it is not a term you would hear in Brazil as they just clump them as negros (blacks) or as African Descendants. I want to talk about the specific Afro Brazilians outside of Brazil…the former Africans who were sent as slaves by the Portuguese to Brazil but were later deported and/or returned to the African continent (West Africa) in the 18th-19th century and made their way to their originally community (Yoruba). There are other Afro Brazilians who decided to return to Africa after being freed (20th century) but upon returning they settled elsewhere (with unknown origins…). The specific group I speak of is special and returned from Bahia, Brazil. Upon returning they created communities in Benin and Nigeria primarily (Togo as well) and brought what they learned as bricklayers, masons, carpenters etc from Brazil (Brazilian Baroque) scattered across the region. Besides leaving this unique style of architecture in Africa they also brought some traditions (such as Carnival) and gained power and prestige trading goods….for some this unfortunately included slaves. Sadly most of these architectural gems are in ruin and are not being preserved well. The main gem in Porto Novo is the colorful mosque that totally looks like a church from Bahia….such an interesting history to walk through.

For lunch we (2 other tourists and I) headed to Adjarra, a 30 minute motorbike ride away. I had read about an excellent restaurant there on a random blog. We really had no clue where it was…so when we arrived we asked a kid, who walked us towards it and pointed us in the direction once we were close then ran off…I wasn´t listening and was the only one who understood French in the group…so we went where we thought she had pointed which had a bunch of people gathered under some tents…thinking this had to be it…a popular place, right! We walked over and were immediately welcomed and invited to join…now unsure if this was the place. Men and women ate and sat separate….but we were placed near the men despite that I was female…they spoke to us and they were happy we came. Soon some food and a friend who spoke English came over. We chatted for a long while and we were eventually told ¨this is a funeral¨..ha ha and who we were speaking to was the cousin ¨…my uncle has passed…¨, of course omg! We stayed a bit and celebrated with them and then we decided to leave…we were hungry….and well it was their party not ours. Still unsure where the restaurant was I asked where the restaurant with pork was…they were nice and directed us by pointing…we said bye and thanked them. As we left my friends laughed because it was crazy what we had just participated in and they couldn´t believe I said we were leaving to eat pork…..they were Muslim….and pork is definitely a no no for them. They weren´t upset with us asking but…might have been shocked/sad we were leaving to eat pork…This goes to show that Beninese are tolerant among religions (thank god…fyi think culturally before speaking…lol), quite welcoming, and even a funeral is a party (food was free for the whole community). By the way the restaurant had amazing food…a different fufu that was yellow and grainy…it was so good we ordered several more!

After my week of classes I headed North making several stops along the way and then took a direct bus back to Cotonou.

My first stop was to Abomay where a famous kingdom lies and is a main Voodoo hub. Voodoo originates in Africa (Benin is actually the birthplace), and is very different from the well known Haitian one (no voodoo doll stuff here!). I met up with a German traveler I’d met in Porto Novo for this stop. He´d arrived a day before and set up our next 3 days. Just FYI I saw maybe 10 western tourists my whole trip in Benin but met quite a few others in Cotonou living and working there. My friend had set up a tour with a recommended English speaking guide who drove us around to the kingdom sites and lead us through the voodoo world…including our own private voodoo ceremony….all three of us on his motorbike (first time for everything, right).

This was my first encounter with any Voodoo, it is the main religion in Benin (but you can be Catholic or Muslim as well) – about 80% practice and I thought I should try to understand more so in I went. Voodoo is so interesting on it’s own that I will write a separate entry soon.

From Abomay I headed to the hills, well collines, to hike. Dassa-Zoumé is where I landed…even the area NW of there had some spectacular hills. I only hiked one because there was little info on where or how to get to them. I really liked this area and almost (should have) stopped again on my way down…I stayed at an eco-farm hotel (Chez Armand) out of town and met my first Peace Corp volunteers ever….also first Americans of the Africa portion of my trip! They were on their last week of 2 years service and loved this place enough to make an overnight stop before leaving to Cotonou and out of the country!  They helped me connect with others to get a Colline hike in before I left. (Colline de Roi)

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The hike was nice, but the views showed all of the smoke in the air that I later learned only got worse as I moved North….December is the month when the trade winds starts to shift and begin to bring dust down from the Sahel desert (it had not arrived yet though). At the same time locals burn the leaves and grass to prepare…thus making it the worst time to visit in terms of air quality. I was obviously not a fan and did not run in the North.

I stayed 2 nights in Dassa then took a local car (taxi brousses – aka bush taxi) to Parakou (fyi which is how you should return from the North- via Parakou) and then tried my first nice bus in ages (Baobob bus…a Beninese paired with a Belgium..company) to get to Tanguieta almost at the Northern border. By the way, once out of Cotonou the climate changes…from Abomay on up it became less humid so the climate felt a tad cooler which is a relief…also for mosquitos! Benin (out of all my stops in Africa) for me felt the worst for malaria (met plenty who had had it there, some multiple times)…Cotonou and the coast in dry season for instance still had plenty of mosquitos …which I believe comes from being so close to Nigeria (highest # of malaria cases and deaths in world…). By the way I traveled without malaria pills in Africa but used repellent and mosquito nets as my prevention and I was fine but Benin did have me worried….though I did used less repellent in the North because in dry season mosquitos were almost non existent…

The air in Tanguieta was thick and disgusting and people were burning everywhere….kids were even in charge of burning the leaves on the ground. I stayed 2 nights at a nice hotel for about $30 total and organized a local guide to see the waterfalls and the Tata Somba homes. The guide was French speaking only and although it was hard to arrange in French, once we were off I was speaking well and understanding quite well…enough of the most important stuff was understood and plenty of new words were learned. I was impressed at my level after 2 months (interruptions and all) and happy I’d kept at it because being able to communicate made life so much easier and let me be more in tune with the culture and people (which is my main goal when traveling).

On the same day I’d negotiated with the guide he drove me out to the waterfalls (about 1 hour on a sand road). Tanougou Falls weren’t that spectacular except that I had it all to myself and it was great to be in nature (if you are here I wouldn’t skip them). There were two falls, the bigger one is where we hung out. Here you could jump in from as high as 15 meters (They say it is around 15m deep) or you could swim and cool off in the huge pool below it (nearly 50m in length). I did my first ever open-water waterfall swim here, a nice 700m or so…and watched 2 locals jump from the 15m rocks, adjacent to the falls….it was a good day. We ate lunch at the hotel near the entrance then drove back along the sandy road that borders the Pendjari National Park….where most people visit when up here. Tourism was very low when I was there, in fact the hotel only had 3 other people in it and all were there on business, because in early 2019 there was a kidnapping/death in the park which borders Burkina Faso. I went North knowing this, I had no interest in the safari as I have done them before (and it was expensive) and knew that the Benin government had secured the border and no other cases had happened since. I felt it safe to go up plus I had monitored the situation while in country and there was not alarm. I was however told by several locals not to walk at night and took those precautions as gold. The kidnappers were from the other country’s terrorist groups who hide in the forests…

The next day we headed South to visit the Tata Somba homes. I was excited to finally see them…This was the real reason I went to the North but learned quickly that I had gone too far North as we nearly had to return to the City of Natitingou (we did actually go because I decided to drop my bag at a hotel) …all of this on motorbike with crappy air….ugg.

The homes are very cool, like mud grass built mini castles…traditional homes for the Tata Somba (Tata means fortress and Somba is the name of the people of the tribe) who are split up along the border with Togo, unfortunately I didn´t see the Togo homes but they are a bit bigger and prettier (as I was told). Both are near the border…and each with a distinct style and the tribe has a slight change in dialect as well.

Homes have two floors, some fine patterns on the outside (matching their facial markings it seemed – which are done at a young age – 3yo – to show what tribe they pertain), voodoo relics near the entrance and about 6 towers (of differing sizes). On the first floor you find the kitchen and area for farm animals. Here I found it particularly interesting that there were some wooden beams termite treated with smoke from the stove…which made them last longer. To get from the first floor to the next there are some stairs and a ladder. On the roof you have the sleeping areas, grainery/storage area, another cooking area and plant drying area. Mainly they sleep directly on the open air roof because it is hot but if needed (if it rains) they have space to sleep under several of the towers. The homes do have a drainage system as well which in turn helps them shower and clean stuff. The construction of the home is done by a special Somba architect and takes about 4-5 months to gather all supplies and physically construct the homes…in the end they can last up to 20 years although modern design and ease are starting to change everything….(abandoning traditional homes for a newer style). The main jobs in these communities are of agriculture, hunting and butchering.

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We drove all the way down to the border town (Boukombe) where a market was going on… I got a trinket, sweets and a sip of the local liquor then headed back to Natitangou (Nat E tang eww) for the night. The hotel I choose was the worst, it was not the price I thought (5 and 50 in French for me gets confusing) and so I decided to move to another but they pretty much wouldn´t let me leave…not wanting to lose the money… and offered me a cheaper room which they never told me about nor offered before…In the morning I had an early bus and went for my change….they said it was at the police station….stupid shit….obviously I knew this was likely a trap…it was…the police had no money for me nor knew anything about it and the owners got all of my cash (80$ for a shit hotel)…stupid situation, plenty of $ lost and no time to fix it because the bus would leave….so my only recommended hotel here is the fancy one at the top of the hill a bit out of town, Totora Hotel with an infinity pool…just go!

The bus I took out of town was also a bad plan….not necessarily a bad bus company but the route they took back to Cotonou was aweful….Just stick to Baobob Bus or ask which road they will use….I did neither! I had been advised to not use the direct road to Cotonou and I found out the hard way why…this road was not paved yet like all the other roads I had used on my way up…..It wasn´t that bumpy but what happened was all the dust from the road entered the bus and literally coated all passengers for a few hours…like 4! Not sure why they even use this route…there were no stops (except my favorite stop  – arrete pi pi) and hardly any towns on this road….just stupid. My good face mask was of course underneath the bus in my bag so I did what I could with a buff and sunglasses…..It took about 9 hours to get to Cotonou and because of all the dust I got a nice cold a few days later (the cough lasted 2 whole months…lol just in time actually since Covid19 showed up right after…) ….grr. My first cold in over 2 years and it was so bad I even got pink eye….FML.

Before the cold hit me though I got in one last trip. I headed to Ouidah (Wee duh) cycling some two hours to get there via a road along the coast (Route de Pêches). Basically I saved the best for last without knowing it! It was just an overnight trip but it ended up being my favorite city in Benin and I can´t mention enough my joy of riding a bicycle to get there. My ride ended at the Door of No Return (2.5 miles from town) where I stayed at a hotel on the beach. That same day I biked into town and explored as much as I could since I would head back to Cotonou the following day!

Ouidah is known for voodoo, with so many things related to it there and in early January they host a famous voodoo festival. Besides voodoo this is an important stop for the history of slavery…as it once was a main trading port for it…When I arrived to the area I started at the end but basically slaves were kept in town then walked to the shore in the heat (with chains of course) and were taken to ships just off shore (the Door of No Return was placed at the end to remind us of what happened and symbolize their last farewell :(. Absolutely horrible how people treated other people during this time (Warning – still exists around the world in various ways!) and it is always a shocking and sad stop but I feel it is very important to educate yourself on what was done to other humans. It is something we should not forget and something we should learn and be mindful of as generations are in our society yet somehow we still treat them otherwise…Africans who came to your countries as slaves are the same as you…they were forced to forget their own heritage and grew into ours. Many if you ask them where they are from they say nothing related to Africa because truly where they are from IS where you ARE from (in each respective country)…if you notice you will hear the same local accent, the same traditions and see that they deal with things/react the same as you because we actually are from the same place. Anywho the road from coast to town has various voodoo sculptures and historical slave stops along the way as well as a fresh coconut stand and cool views of some fishing villages 🙂 This road (Route des Esclaves) is famous and many come here to walk the same route in the heat so they can feel a tad of the hardships people were forced into and just remember (a powerful, humanizing walk).

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In town I visited the Python Temple…yes touristy and home for the sacred pythons that are collected in Ouidah (they are calm and friendly)…about 200 of them! I checked out another Zinsou museum, the Sacred forest (voodoo related), got some local grub on the street and a Benonois beer before heading back to the beach. The next day I got in a run and swim….Ouidah is by far the place with the most runners in Benin (of all ages and sexes)…then headed back to Cotonou on bike. Read more about the cycling adventure to Ouidah here.

My final days I spent mainly recovering at the hostel in Cotonou from my cold, applying for my Ghanaian visa as a non Beninese resident (somehow they still gave me one….yeah!) and visiting the clinic – to test for malaria because it was odd that I was even sick — it came back negative – and checking on my pink eye…that appeared the day after cycling…bummer.

I almost forgot that on my very last day I did try to go to Ganvie, a settlement created on the water by a local tribe fleeing from being captured into slavery…great historical place I felt was worthy of visiting. Unfortunately I never made it out….I was kicked off the local boat 3 times because I am a tourist (there is a tour). I wanted to see it like the locals do because that shows more according to me not how western white people see it on a guided tour…I gave up on the last boat because just as we were about to leave they kicked me off again.  Before leaving pissed I complained (in my so so French) that it wasn’t fair especially since there were obviously other tourists on the boat (directly behind me) who could stay on…anyway the floating market at this port was well worth my hour trip out that failed to see the village….tours were $20 a person.

Bummed my trip ended like this but I guess it was just time to move on from Yovo territory, Yovo is the word locals use when they see you…it means white person, since I was now insanely over hearing it said…Overall Benin was an amazing hidden gem rich with history and uniqueness. From voodoo and kingdoms to slavery and architecture (…animals, beaches and more) I  am so glad I was able to experience it and glad to know the government is investing in tourism and infrastructure to bring more of us there to witness first hand all of it’s crazy but amazing and historical world…really hope you get over there sometime.

Videos

more Afro Brazilian history:

https://www.pambazuka.org/global-south/afro-brazilian-legacy-bight-benin
or
https://journals.openedition.org/etudesafricaines/pdf/88

more Tata Somba history:

https://www.southworld.net/architecture-tata-somba/
https://www.culturesofwestafrica.com/tata-somba-batammaliba-architecture/

The people: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somba_people

Hotels:

Cotonou

  • Guesthouse Etoile Rouge – privates only and nice friendly atmosphere – still good pricing
  • Cocotiers Guesthouse – dorms and privates
    ***stayed at both, Cocotiers is closer to where most tourists want to stay but I enjoyed the other more…more local feeling
    **you could also stay at the beach

Abomey

  • Auberg d’Abomey – very nice – pricier but decent (camping avail.)
  • Chez Monique – around the corner – also nice – cheaper

Dassa-Zoumé

  • Chez Armand – dorm room and private huts available…had whole dorm to myself.
    **best to call before and get transport from them otherwise good luck directing them…it isn´t that well known as I found out.

Ouidah

  • Hotel de la Diaspora – nice, by beach, quiet, pool might or might not be clean (then again I would just be cautious in West Africa in general), various prices. You can camp though be aware that there might be lots of mosquitos….only set back was dinner at night…only option here seemed to be at the hotels.

Natitangou

  • Hotel Totora – didn’t stay but it is the best option and has an infinity pool…don’t second guess just stay here!

Tanguieta

  • Hotel Baobob – cheap and nice, with pool…best place in town
    **also recommend hotel next to waterfalls, so calming and in nature…but 1 hour out of town on dirt road so only if you plan to stay a few days

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