Benin is one of the more stable countries in Africa, although it still remains one of the poorest of the lot. The country occupies a narrow strip of land that is about 415 miles long but only 80 miles wide. Situated on the Gulf of Guinea, Benin is bordered in the north by Niger and Burkina Faso, in the east by Nigeria, in the west by Togo, and in the south by the Atlantic Ocean.
Benin has four geographical regions. A flat narrow strip runs along the gulf coast. Further north, flat lowlands turn into a network of swamps and lagoons. In the country’s north, dense vegetation covers flat lands that gradually rise into broad plateaus and small groups of hills. In the northwest, Benin is dominated by the Atakora Mountains, which rises as high as 3,000 feet. The northeast, meanwhile, consists of fertile plains.
Benin’s main tourist attraction is its two national parks: Pendjari and ‘W’ National Park. Pendjari is open only between December and June while ‘W’ National Park, which straddles the region converged by Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso, is open year-round but is less developed. Both parks feature a range of wildlife that includes hippos, cheetahs, and crocodiles.
Beaches along the coast are Benin’s other main draw. There are excellent beaches at Ouidah and Grand Popo, but visitors should be warned about the strong and sometimes dangerous currents and tides at sea. Certain areas should only be ventured by strong swimmers. Unfortunately, facilities for water sports at these beaches are limited. But if you enjoy sailing, you should visit the Yacht Club in Cotonou. If you like canoeing or boating, visit the Nakoue Lagoon.
There are a few historic sites in Benin. In Ouidah, there is an old Portuguese fort and a colonial temple known as the Temple of the Sacred Python. Many examples of colonial and pre-colonial art and architecture can be found in Porto Novo, where you’ll also find the notable Ethnological Museum.
A “must” is the museum in Abomey, which is about 60 miles northeast of Porto Novo.
Abomey was once the capital of one of the ancient kingdoms of Benin. The museum building used to be the grand palace of one of the kingdoms. It traces the history of the three ancient Abomey kingdoms and features a throne made of human skulls. Some of the other treasures include intricate metal sculptures honoring gods and murals made of clay. Woven cloths are also on display, symbolically and pictorially representing the lives of former kings and the history of the three early kingdoms.
For the most part, Benin is very hot and humid, especially in the south. There are two dry and two rainy seasons. From October to April, Benin is dry, whereas it is rainy from May to September.
Not much is known about Benin’s early history. During the 16th and 17th centuries, three kingdoms flourished in the south: Ardra, Jakin, and Dahomey. The first European contact was around 1500. Contact was made with the kingdom of Dahomey. One of its kings saw the advantage of trading with the Europeans and sought to expand his kingdom to the coast; this task was eventually achieved by his descendant Agadja in 1727. The Africans traded slaves in return for cloth, pots, plates, liquor, tools, and guns.
In the mid-18th century, the Yoruba kingdom in the east called Oyo seized the kingdom of Dahomey and forced it to pay tribute for more than a hundred years. In the mid-19th century, the Oyo was overthrown and Dahomey re-established its dominance. Around this time, trade relations were established with the French.
In the late 19th century, a series of wars were waged between the kingdoms in the south. In the turmoil, the French took the opportunity to seize the territories and colonize the area.
Benin did not gain full independence from France until 1960. Although Benin suffered through a number of military coups and political instability early on, the early 1990s brought about a new constitution that called for multiparty elections. Today, Benin’s is held in high regard in the international community and its model democracy has been widely acclaimed.