Benin was long used for trading slaves by the Portuguese who established many of the Southern cities including the capital Porto-Novo (named to distinguish it from the old Porto in Portugal). Later, the country was colonized by France until 1960 when it became independent as the state of Dahomey. The country faced many military coups until 1972 when Mathieu Kérékou became president, renamed the country Benin and established a Marxist-Leninist rule. He stayed in power until 1991 after which multi party democracy was established. Today it is one of the more stable countries in the area.
Crossing the border from Togo to Benin was uncomplicated business. Not only could we easily and cheaply apply and get the visas on the spot, neither were we asked into private rooms in order to answer questions nor had to show our vaccination cards. The shared taxi that picked us up at Coco Beach in Togo now dropped us in a small town called Grand Popo. Benin had turned out to be our last country on this trip since we did not get the visas to Nigeria and therefore had decided to go back to Sweden to rest for a while. Because of this we had booked a room at a beach resort with the aim to soak in as much sun and tropical heat as possible before returning to the dark and cold Swedish fall. The resort turned out to have passed its time of glory, but we were still able to spend a few very relaxing and nice days there. For once the weather gods were on our side and we laid by the pool, took walks to have local lunch in the village and ate freshly caught fish at the hotel restaurant for dinner. In both Benin and Togo the ocean currents were too strong for bathing, we tried in both countries, but had to stop before the water was knee deep when we felt like we would get swept away.
After having spent a few days in paradise we had almost forgotten how frustrating and tiring it can be to travel in West Africa. We were reminded however when we were taking a shared taxi to the town Ouidah, a few kilometers to the east, sharing the backseat with two other persons. Ouidah is known to be the voodoo capital of Benin and a big voodoo festival is held there each year in January. While admiring majestic houses built during the colonial time we walked to the Zinzou Foundation Museum. The museum is located in an old colonial villa and contains artwork from artists from all over the African continent. A knowledgeable guide showed us around among the paintings, sculptures and light and sound installations, trying to make us understand his French explanations. The museum was very well maintained, highly interesting and even free to visit. It was very nice to see how art and artists are appreciated in Benin!
Next up in Ouidah we visited a python temple which was a small voodoo building containing 60 python snakes.
After spending a few hours in Ouidah we continued east on the coastal road of Benin and after a short while we reached Cotonou. Cotonou is Benin’s largest city and we were planning on spending our last nights in Africa there as a base to do day trips to places around. We got the last room at a very chill backpacker hostel and spent the rest of the day and evening there.
In many other cities we have visited there have been a lot of motorcycle taxis, however it turned out that Cotonou wins the prize. There were motorcycle taxis everywhere and all the drivers wore special yellow shirts with individual numbers to indicate that they could transport passengers. It was difficult finding car taxis and walking in the streets turned out to be a dangerous adventure every time.
With just a few days left in Africa we spent the following day at a souvenir market as a final test of our bargain and patience skills. After a few hours we had gotten what we wanted and could return to our hostel.
Even though Cotonou is the largest city of Benin it is not the capital. The capital is called Porto-Novo and located further east and the next day we decided to go there to check it out. This day we had no luck with the weather and we wandered the streets of Porto-Novo in the rain. The city felt a little bit calmer and less chaotic than Cotonou and it also seemed to have more green spaces and nicer buildings. But other than that it was not a lot to do there and after a few hours we returned to Cotonou.
That night we went to sleep with the knowledge that it was going to be our last night on African soil for a while. Our flight was not going to leave until late in the evening the following day so we still had a whole day to spend in Benin and we had decided to make the most out of it. We took a shared taxi (managed to find a car) to a very big lake called Nokoué. There we took a guided tour in a boat to a city called Ganvié. The villagers built the town on stilts in the lake to avoid the slave traders and now more than 35 000 persons live there. The people live by fishing and make artificial reefs from branches where they breed the fish. Everything from houses to religious buildings to schools to hospitals are built on stilts in the lake and the inhabitants use boats to get between the different buildings. Just a few people have electricity from solar panels but the rest live without. Drinking water to the town is pumped from two deep bore holes and the inhabitants come with their containers in their boats to fill them up. It was indeed a highly interesting place to visit and we are happy that we got a glimpse of the special life style of the inhabitants!
Back in the hostel we packed our backpacks for the last time and in the evening we went to the airport. The airport of Cotonou was very small and we were not able to spend our last money in the only tax free shop, since they only sold whiskey, cigarettes and perfume. Around 10 pm we boarded a Turkish Airline plane and flew to Abidjan where we waited in the plane for passengers coming from Istanbul to get off and new passengers going there to get on. We sat next to a very nervous young lady from Abidjan that flew for the first time in her life. She was going to Russia to study there for six years.
In the morning after far too little sleep we landed in Istanbul where we drank the best cup of coffee we have had in months.
In the afternoon we boarded another plane that in a few hours took us to Stockholm and home to Sweden.
We took a train to Norrköping where David’s mother picked us up at the station. We were home!
Benin might be the country we have visited on this trip that has had the best potential for tourism. As long as you can speak a little French the country has very much to offer; from beautiful beaches in the South to interesting voodoo culture to traditional African safaris in the North. We only got a small glimpse of Benin but we would love to go back some day in the future.
We will probably make another blog post were we will write about how it is to be back and what our future plans are. Stay tuned!
Nights spent in Benin. Blue = Hotel/hostel. One bed = one night, Two beds = several nights.