ALTERNATE NAME: (former) Dahomey
POPULATION: 5.7 million
LANGUAGE: French (official language); Fon and Yoruba in the south; Bariba and Fulani in the north; over 40 other languages
RELIGION: Animism; Christianity (Catholicism); Islam
Until 1972, Benin was called " Dahomey," named after the ancient Kingdom of Dan Homey. The French and Portuguese colonized Dahomey. They took part in the slave trade in Dahomey until it was ended in 1885. In the 1880s the French overthrew the kings of Dahomey. Dahomey gained independence from the French on August 1, 1960. Since then the country has suffered ethnic conflict and army revolts. In 1990 prodemocracy protests helped end military rule. Since then, a president was elected, and the economy and armed forces were reorganized. However, student protests and strikes by government employees show that people are still unhappy with Benin's weak economy.
Benin is a small west African country about the size of Pennsylvania. It has a flat and sandy coastal plain with warm temperatures (70° F to 85° F ) and two rainy seasons. The northern, thinly wooded savanna has one short rainy season, and temperatures reach over 110° F .
In 1996, Benin's population was about 5.7 million people. Over half of them were under fifteen years old. Many people have moved to cities, but most still live in villages. There are more than forty-two ethnic groups in Benin: the Fon make up 40 percent of the population; the Adja, Bariba, Yoruba, and Aizo/HouJda make up another 40 percent; the Fulani, Kotokoli, and Dendi comprise the rest (20 percent).
The peoples of Benin speak fifty-one languages. French is the official language. The two major languages in the south are Fon and Yoruba. In the north, they are Bariba and Fulani.
These are some common greetings in Fon.
|Good morning||AH-FON ghan-jee-ah|
|How are you?||AH-DOH ghan-jee-ah|
Benin's nickname is "Land of Songs" because singing is important in daily life. Through singing, people express their feelings and tell their history. Songs vary from pleasant to dramatic in order to convey the proper emotion. Each ethnic group has its own songs and dances.
The majority of Beninese practice animist religion. About 15 percent are Christian, and about 13 percent are Islamic. Beninese animists include the Fon, Yoruba, and Mina groups. Animists recognize some 5,000 to 6,000 gods or spirits. The animist leaders worship spirits, predict the future, and use many kinds of spiritual objects. One of the most famous cults is the Python Cult, also called the Cult of the Great Serpent. The Python Cult worships a deity from the ancient kingdom of Ouidah. Their main temple contains huge, living, defanged pythons.
Benin has a mix of animist, Muslim, Christian, and secular holidays. Beninese celebrate the Muslim Tabaski feast and the month-long fast of Ramadan. They also observe the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Benin celebrates its Independence Day on August 1. In the past, the Beninese held parades, native dances, and evening balls. But since living conditions have been difficult under the military rule that followed independence, citizens don't have much enthusiasm for patriotic celebrations. Consequently, most Beninese now spend holidays quietly with their families, enjoying a good meal if they can afford it.
Beninese place great importance on rites of passage. Their families, society, and traditions depend on them. Rites of passage can be joyful. For example, baptisms are community celebrations that involve feasting and dancing. Weddings are cause for feasting and celebration. Traditional weddings can last weeks. When someone dies, the rituals involve helping the survivors.
In Benin, people usually greet each other even if they are strangers. Muslims ask about the other person's family. Visitors are always offered a glass of water, and if it is mealtime, they are expected to eat. When they wake up, children directly greet their parents. People kneel in front of older family members or important members of the community. This is a sign of respect.
Compared to the rest of the world, living standards in Benin are low. Outside of cities, many houses do not have safe drinking water or proper toilets. Medical problems like malaria, measles, and malnutrition kill many infants. Many young children and pregnant women are malnourished. These are serious health problems. However, Benin is improving the health and living conditions of its people. The constitution of 1990 helps and protects children. Benin takes part in a health plan known as the Bamako Health Initiative, which brings medicines to rural health clinics and immunizes children.
The main roads in Benin are paved. It is easy to travel from the coast to the north by bush taxi or minivan. Secondary roads can be rugged and can tear up vehicles. Benin has 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) of paved roads and another 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) of unpaved roads.
Beninese women play leading roles in the home. They make many decisions about home economics and child care. Traditionally, the husband's job has been to support the family. Nowadays, more Beninese women work outside the home. They tend small gardens or work in small businesses.
On average, Beninese women have seven pregnancies in their lifetime. But families of four to six children are becoming more common. Usually, if a child is born out of wedlock, the parents will marry to take care of the child. Some marriages are polygamous, where there is one husband but more than one wife. In polygamous marriages, each wife has her own apartment in a large family house. The wives share a common kitchen and other facilities.
On the coast, women usually wear African pagnes. These are of dazzling colors and patterns, and often have a matching head scarf.
Muslim women wear a three-piece cloth outfit. One piece wraps around the waist, one around the chest, and one covers the head. Once married, Muslim women in Benin always cover their heads in public. Men traditionally wear boubou -style (loose, long, and flowing) cotton shirts over pants. The west African embroidered boubou is becoming popular with both men and women. The boubou requires many hours to sew and embroider and is very expensive, costing as much as hundreds of dollars. Therefore, boubou are worn only for special occasions.
There is a great variety of food in Benin. The main food is la pate, bread made of various kinds of flour. La pate is dipped into sauces and is eaten with the right hand. Traditional households eat porridge for breakfast, which is made from millet, corn, yams, or manioc. Gari is made of grated manioc and is enjoyed with peanut-cake snacks. Merchants on street corners in southern towns sell deep-fried dumplings made from pounded bananas or beans. Many Beninese enjoy soft drinks and beer, but these require spare cash. Local drinks include natural lemonade and limeade, palm wine (sodabi), and beer and gin made from millet (chapalo).
This recipe takes about 15 minutes for preparation, and 30 minutes for cooking.
Benin has low enrollment in its primary schools. In 1989, only 59 percent of the children were enrolled. About 30 percent reached sixth grade and only 64 children graduated. However, Benin is working to improve adult literacy. In 1995, the government estimated that about 37 percent of adults could read and write. This was much better than in the past.
Beninese animism, dance, and music have a long and rich history. The traditional dances of the Fon people are well-known. Now, Fon dance is becoming modernized. The music is played on a mix of traditional drums and modern instruments such as electric guitars and synthesizers. Skilled craftspeople produce traditional instruments of high quality.
Many Beninese cultural traditions are derived from ancient kingdoms. For example, Nikki is the capital of a kingdom that began in the fifteenth century. The Baribas live where that kingdom once existed. They are wonderful riders who like to show off their horsemanship.
There are not enough acceptable jobs in Benin. In the cities, about 75 percent of people have low-paying, menial jobs like peddler and pushcart operator. In the villages, most Beninese (62 percent) work in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. The main crops are manioc, maize, and yams. Other crops, like coconut palms, and cotton, are sold for cash. As of the late 1990s, Beninese hoped that a planned hydroelectric dam on the Mono River would bring factories. They also hoped that mineral deposits and offshore oil would provide new and better jobs.
The Beninese national sport is soccer. It is watched by Beninese everywhere and is played mainly by boys and young men.
Entertainment is different in the cities and villages of Benin. In the towns and cities where electricity is available, Beninese can watch state-run television. Many people are also buying satellite dishes. Few people have video cassette recorders. Movies are always popular.
Beninese also enjoy traditional dancing. Because of their cultural heritage, dancing, music, and cultural performances may be considered a type of sport. As in sports, teamwork is very important. Beninese compare and rate dancers and musicians for their agility, creativity, skill, and stamina.
Electricity is not available in most villages. There, people make their own fun. Ceremonies, holidays, and traditional feasts make up most of the recreation. For example, baptisms happen often and are one of the most common forms of entertainment. A village of 300 to 400 people may have as many as thirty baptisms a year.
Beninese artists produce fine weaving and traditional sculptures. Sculptors also make masks, tables, boxes, scepters (a baton or staff that symbolizes authority), and armchairs. Crafts are both artistic and practical. For example, craftswomen make pots of all sizes for carrying and storing water. Blacksmiths not only produce works of art, but also repair bicycles, motorcycles, and automobiles. Beninese also make a wide range of handmade instruments, from twin drums to small Beninese guitars.
At this time, Benin's major social problems are mainly caused by the poor economy. Benin has high unemployment and low wages. Even educated people have to take manual jobs such as driving motorcycle-taxis. But social problems like crime, murder, and drug abuse are rare. However, some countries are starting to ship illegal drugs through Benin. This might cause more drug crime in the future.
Africa on File. New York: Facts on File, 1995.
Decalo, Samuel. Historical Dictionary of Benin. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1995.