Benin - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Republic of Benin
Formation 1960 / 1960
Population 9.2 million / 215 people per sq mile (83 people per sq km)
Total area 43,483 sq. miles (112,620 sq. km)
Languages Fon, Bariba, Yoruba, Adja, Houeda, Somba, French*
Religions Indigenous beliefs and Voodoo 50%, Christian 30%, Muslim 20%
Ethnic mix Fon 41%, Other 21%, Adja 16%, Yoruba 12%, Bariba 10%
Government Presidential system
Currency CFA franc = 100 centimes
Literacy rate 42%
Calorie consumption 2512 kilocalories
The Republic of Benin is situated in western Africa. Throughout much of its history this region was known as Dahomey.
The earliest recorded information dates back to the 12th or 13th century C.E. when members of the Aja tribe migrated eastward from Tado on the Mono River and established the village of Allada. When the state of Great Ardra was formed sometime later, Allada became the capital. In the 17th century three brothers had a dispute over who would be king. When it was settled, Kokpon stayed on in Great Ardra, his brother Do-Aklin established the town of Abomey, and the other brother Te-Agdanlin founded the town of Ajatche, or Little Ardra (called Porto Novo by Portuguese traders).
The settlers in Abomey built a strongly centralized kingdom with its own army and intermarried with the local population to form the Fon, or Dahomey ethnic group. By the end of the century, the Fon had become slave-traders, raiding their neighbors and selling them to coastal middlemen, who then resold them to the Europeans. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 slaves were transported from Great Ardra and Oidah annually.
King Agaja (1708–32 C.E.) sought to expand the Dahomey’s borders until his policies brought his tribe into conflict with the Yoruba. The Yoruba captured the lands of the Dahomey and exacted an annual tribute. Nevertheless the Dahomey managed to continue their expansion to the north and maintained its slave trade well into the 19th century.
In 1863 seeking to challenge the Dahomey’s power, the village of Porto-Novo agreed to become a French protectorate.
This gave the French a position from which to subjugate the Dahomey along the coast. Although King Behanzin (r. 1889–90) tried to stop them, the French conquered that part of the territory and established a protectorate there as well. Between 1895 and 1898 the French also subjugated the regions to the north; in 1904 the whole territory was consolidated into French West Africa. France increased the production of palm products and built railroads and ports for exporting them. In addition, they encouraged Roman Catholic missionaries to build elementary schools.
The area, which came to be called after the dominant ethnic group (Dahomey), became an overseas territory of France in 1946, thereby gaining its own parliament and representation in the French National Assembly. Widespread demonstrations in the region forced the French to listen to the popular voice. Finally in 1958, the region was granted autonomy, and the Republic of Dahomey came into existence.
The republic achieved independent status on August 1, 1960. Although Porto Novo is the capital, the seat of government was located in Cotonou.
Hubert Maga (1916–2000) was the nation’s first president. Growing economic tensions, political instability, and tribal war, however, led to a military coup in 1963, and Justin Ahomadegbe (1917–2002) proclaimed himself chief of the state. Six more years of political unrest ensued, until 1969, when Lt. Col.
Paul-Émile de Souza (?1930–99) became president.
Elections were canceled in 1970, and a threeman council was appointed. In 1972 Major Mathieu Kerekou (b. 1933) led a successful coup and declared himself head of state. When he proclaimed Marxist Leninism the country’s ideology and declared it a socialist state, the country earned the nickname of “Cuba of West Africa.” In 1975, the country’s name was changed to the Republic of Benin. The country was run as a socialist state until 1989. In 1991 free elections were held.
Nicephor Sogolo defeated Mathieu Kerekou, but in the 1996 election Kerekou was reelected and was still in power in the early years of the 21st century.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Benin is bordered by Nigeria on the east and Togo on the west. Burkina Faso lies to the northwest and Niger to the northeast. To the south is the Atlantic Ocean. The country has a coastal plain toward the south with various lagoons created by the Oueme, Mono, and Couffo Rivers. The largest lagoon, Lac Nokouge, separates Porto Novo and Cotonou. The popular fishing village Ganvie is also near this lake.
The Atakora Mountains, rising to a height of 2,159 feet, lie on the northern side.
Benin’s climate varies greatly from north to south. The southern climate is subtropical. It has two dry seasons and two rainy seasons, with temperatures ranging between 64ºF and 95ºF. In the north, the climate is tropical, with one dry season and one rainy season. Between March and June, the temperature can reach 115ºF.
Benin is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. In 1961 the population was around 2.1 million, and by 2003 it had exceeded 6.6 million.
Most of the people live in the southern part of the country.
Benin is also one of the poorest countries in the world and is highly dependent on international aid.
It is self-sufficient in food production, but natural calamities and environmental degradation are serious problems. Salinization of the lagoons, deforestation, excessive fishing, and soil erosion plague the country. Agriculture has also resulted in destruction of the rain forest.
About 70 percent of the Beninese are farmers.
Maize, millet, coffee, cassava, groundnuts, and pulses (legumes) are the main crops. They are grown primarily for consumption in the regions where they are grown and for purposes of regional trade. Cattle breeding is also common. Goats, pigs, and sheep are raised, and fishing is done on a commercial scale.
The major industrial product is cement. Benin also has traces of petroleum deposits, phosphates, iron, and gold.
There has been a rapid increase in cotton production during the 20th century, and cotton constitutes 84 percent of Benin’s exports. Palm oil, which is produced from palm nuts, is also a major export of the republic.
Today, the government of Benin is trying to encourage foreign investment. It is also developing food-processing systems, and improvements have been made in communications and information technology. The tourism sector is growing but remains precarious because the traditional practice of vidomegon, whereby poor children are placed with wealthy families, has resulted in some labor and sexual exploitation. Benin is a source, transit, and destination country for trafficked children.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
There are more than 20 sociocultural groups in Benin, each with its own history, language, traditions, and culture. The major tribes in this polyglot nation are Fon, Yoruba, Bariba and Dendi.
The Fon, along with the Yoruba, are the two largest groups in the south, where most people speak the Fon language.
The Yoruba inhabit the southeastern and central parts of the Republic of Benin. Yoruba are followers of Christianity and Islam and fuse indigenous beliefs with these two religions.
They organize themselves into small kingdoms, which are politically autonomous but culturally similar.
In the north, the Bariba, Dendi, and Somba, mainly farmers and shepherds, form the largest cultural groups. The Dendi tribal state can trace its origins to the kingdom of Songhai, which was destroyed by Morocco and then conquered by the French in 1901. The inhabitants of this region, as well as the language they speak, share the name of the region and are called Dendi. The Dendi breed cattle, but farming is their primary occupation. The Somba are mainly nomadic hunters and have no formal political organization.
The Bariba inhabit the central and northern parts of Benin. They form the largest ethnic group in the north and account for one-twelfth of the country’s population. Bariba society has highranking members who are chiefs and subordinate chiefs of towns. The nature of one’s work reflects the status of the family and is generally handed down from one generation to the next. Although a majority of Bariba are Muslim, the upper strata of society still adhere to indigenous beliefs. They are mainly farmers who grow crops like sorghum, rice, cassava (tapioca), corn, palm oil, and cotton.
Men enjoy a dominant role, and women are expected to assist their husbands in agricultural activities.
Almost half of the Beninese population adheres to either the Christian or Muslim faith, while the other half practices indigenous beliefs. In 1996 the ancient religion of Vodoun, which involves witchcraft and animistic deities, was recognized as the official religion of Benin. Benin is the birthplace of Vodoun, better known as voodoo in the Western world.
Voodoo recognizes one god and a series of intermediaries who act as communicators between God and the faithful.
The diet of the people of Benin consists in large part of yams, beans, millet, cassava (tapioca), and rice.
Gari, made from the paste of the cassava (tapioca), is a popular dish in the southern part of the country.
Djenkoume is made out of a paste of corn, red palm oil, and tomatoes. Okra pods (referred to as “ladyfingers”) are stewed or eaten raw. The Beninese have their own version of fries, which are made out of boiled and fried yams or plantains.
Stews are a favorite in Benin; one of their specialties is ago glain, made with with shellfish, onions, and tomatoes in a sauce that varies by locale. The people in the north prefer starchy dishes such as millet couscous and often add local sauces for spiciness. Lamounou dessi is a favorite local sauce made from chilies, smoked shrimp, fish, and vegetables.
Wedding rituals vary from community to community in Benin. Many value virginity highly. Thus, the mothers of Edo brides give their daughters cash if they remain virgins until their wedding night. After the wedding night the bedsheets are checked thoroughly for bloodstains. The next morning the bride’s nightgown may be shown to the public as proof of her virginity.
In the Vodoun culture, which is widespread in Benin, death is not regarded as the end of life. Practitioners believe that the body is the shell for the life force. After death, the soul journeys back to where it came from. It is important to send the soul back to the cosmic community; otherwise, it will wander the Earth and cause harm to the person’s family.