Benin and the surrounding area was settled in the 13th century by Ewe speaking people in the south and by Voltaic speakers in the north. Some time before 1600 the Adja people migrated from the west, mixed with the Fon and founded the kingdom of Allada which broke up into the rival states at Abomey and Porto-Novo in the 17th. The first of these grew into the Kingdom of Dahomey, which dominated the area until the 19th century.
In 1851 France signed a treaty of friendship and trade with the ruler of Porto-Novo and in 1892 they routed the Dahomey king Béhanzin who was captured in 1894 and exiled to Martinique. In 1899 Dahomey was incorporated into French West Africa.
In 1958 it became an autonomous republic of the French Community and its Independence was proclaimed in 1960.The first president, Hubert Maga, was ousted in 1963 by the army commander, and a series of four coups followed in the next six years. In 1970 a three-member presidential commission took power and suspended the constitution. The members, including former president Maga, were to serve as president successively. Maga held office first, succeeded in 1972 by Justin Ahomadegbe. Later that year, however, Major Mathieu (later Ahmed) Kérékou seized power, ending the commission form of government. In 1975 the country was renamed Benin and a new constitution made the country a one-party Marxist state in 1977. Kérékou was elected president by the National Revolutionary Assembly in 1980 and reelected in 1984. In 1990 he was forced to establish a transitional government which paved the way for multiparty elections held in 1991 which were won by Nicéphore Soglo who instituted austerity measures and promoted free market economics. The economy improved too slowly, Soglo's personal popularity sagged and he was defeated in the 1996 elections by Kérékou who renounced his autocratic, Marxist past.
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Another taxi brousse brought me to Grand Popo where I paused to have a look at the Auberge de Grand Popo and its fine beach.
The Auberge de Grand Popo must be a great place for hard-working North Europeans to indulge in a week of quiet relaxation when burnout threatens. As I did not feel like doing nothing, I moved on (besides, the place was empty and there was nobody there to do nothing with!).
It was only a short way to Ouidah, the voodoo center of Benin, where this Snake Temple and the Catholic Cathedral face off in the town square like boxers in a ring.
The Cathedral was getting all the business on the day I was there as they were holding a wedding of some important people in cars with government plates and bodyguards.
The small Ouidah Museum was very interesting thanks to the friendly curator who took time to explain the origin and meaning of the various masks and sculptures.
Cotonou is right on the beach. I chose to show you the efforts of this crowd pulling up a fishing boat rather than a shot of the beach behind me because it is very much like the one I have shown of Lomé's beach.
The Notre Dame Cathedral marks the center of Cotonou where Avenue Steinmetz meets Avenue Clozel.
Benin and more particularly Cotonou is the land of motor bikes, everybody seems to have one and those who don't hire these yellow shirted drivers who replace taxis.
The Hôtel Crillon where I stayed was OK but it certainly was not comparable to the prestigious Paris hotel of the same name, neither was the price of course. Just across the street was a primitive maquis where, everyday, a quartered lamb roasted all afternoon over embers in old oil drum. This made an excellent meal when well cooked, cut in bite-sized pieces, lightly sprinkled with pepper and cumin and served with beer and freshly baked French bread.
This maquis in a nearby side street made good roast chicken but I found the roast lamb much better, maybe because it is less common were I come from.
In Cotonou I was welcomed a by Yves Assogba and Myriam, a friend from Niger.
Yves drove us to Porto-Novo where we visited the Royal Palace and the Ethnographic Museum where once again I found the guide to be exceptionally knowledgeable and interesting. Kudos for Benin's museum administration.
This is Place Jean Bayal at the entrance of Porto-Novo.
This is the entrance to the Palace of King Toffa who signed the first treaty with the French in 1883. Originally built in 1670 it has been remodeled many times and was the seat of the Porto-Novo Kingdom until its extinction in 1976 when the 25th King was not replaced.
The following day, Yves, Myriam and I went to Calavi to get a boat for a tour of the African Venice, Ganvié on lake Nokoué.
The people who live here are descendants of the Tofinu tribe who moved in from the north in the 18th century to escape domination by the Fon's expanding Dahomey kingdom.
Living in huts built on stilts several kilometres away from the shore of the shallow lake made them safe from Fon warriors whose taboos prevented them from venturing on water.
There are other such villages on Nokoué Lake but Ganvié is the largest and most visited.
These people have lived almost exclusively of fishing but now tourism is becoming a significant livelihood for them.
They are still self-sufficient but visiting their the village made me think of the Uro Amerindians who had retreated to floating islands built of tortora reeds in Peru's Lake Titicaca to escape the domination of the Collas and later, of the Incas.
For centuries the Uros were self-sufficient living off fishing. When the tourist industry offered an easier livelihood they stopped fishing and have now become dependent on tourists for their survival.
This great tourist hotel and souvenir shop built on stilts, could be an indication that the Tofinu might evolve the same way. I think that would be a pity because now the remaining Uros are little more than beggars living on handout.
Abomey was the capital of the great Dahomey Kingdom which lasted from the early 17th century to 1893 when it fell to the French.
The Fon people had the peculiar custom that each new king would build himself a new palace instead of using his predecessors which was abandoned to the previous king's retinue. By the 19th century the royal compound had expanded to enclose a dozen palaces in various states of repair covering 40 hectares surrounded by this high wall.
I found this very interesting and would like to take many photos and visit the place in depth for the Chimu people, who built their capital Chan-Chan near Trujillo on the north coast of Peru around 1300 AD, practiced the exact same custom until they were defeated by the Incas in about 1460. I explored and photographed the ruins of some of the nine palaces of the Chan-Chan site in 1994 and would have liked the same here.
Unfortunately, this was not possible here has visitors had to be accompanied by a guide and taking pictures was forbidden on the other side of the palace entrance shown here.
I did however manage to take one picture surreptitiously so feast your eyes on this forbidden view of one of the buildings inside one of the palaces of the Abomey Royal Compound.
Personally I am very annoyed by the paranoia of photography I have had to face in certain countries. I can observe that I have encountered it mostly in the less developed countries but I cannot understand the logic behind it. Especially now that satellites can almost read the numbers on the license plate of your car!
In Abomey, I stayed in this quaint hotel called La Lutta with reference (in Italian), to the struggle of the exploited classes against their capitalist oppressors. The hotel got to be known under that name and the owner never bothered to change it when that rhetoric went out of fashion. It was clean, cheap (5.50$US) and... amusing.
I'm including this shot of the local "gare routière" so you can see what a "taxi brousse" looks like. They leave the only when full with four people in the back and two in front with the driver.
Parakou has a big market, some good hotels, banks and government offices; it is the administrative center of the north. It was a good place to stop after five hours cramped in a taxi brousse. I changed money at the bank, had a good meal of kidney at the Hôtel Flamboyant where was staying and left for Niger the following morning.
From Parakou to Malanville on the Niger border is a long five hour drive through a semi-arid countryside shared by the sedentary Bariba and the nomadic Fulani.