Benin is bordered by Togo to the west, by Nigeria to the east and by Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. A majority of the population live on its small southern coastline on the Bight of Benin, part of the Gulf of Guinea.

The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo, but the seat of government is in Cotonou, the country's largest city and economic capital. Benin has a population of approximately 10 million. Benin is highly dependent on agriculture, with substantial employment and income arising from subsistence farming. The official language is French. However, indigenous languages such as Fon and Yoruba are commonly spoken. The largest religious group in Benin is Roman Catholicism, followed closely by Islam, Vodun and Protestantism.

From the 17th to the 19th century, the main political entities in the area were the Kingdom of Dahomey along with the city-state of Porto-Novo and a large area with many different tribes to the north. This region was referred to as the Slave Coast from as early as the 17th century due to the large number of slaves shipped to the New World during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. After slavery was abolished, France took over the country and renamed it French Dahomey. In 1960, Dahomey gained full independence from France, and had a tumultuous period with many different governments. A Marxist-Leninist state called the People's Republic of Benin existed between 1975 and 1990. In 1991, it was replaced by the current multi-party Republic of Benin.

Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (Voodoo) and all that goes with it—to this day Vodun remains the official religion of the country, and an important part of the life of ordinary Beninese.

Benin remains as an extremely poor country, suffering from poverty and corruption. Infrastructure remains very poor in condition, and the struggling economy is recovering after decades of political unrest.

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Ganvie is a lake village in Benin, lying in Lake Nokoué, near Cotonou. With a population of around 30,000 people, it is probably the largest lake village in Africa. The village was established in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries by the Tofinu people to avoid the large ships of European slave raiders, making the islands in the lagoon a safe territory for other tribes. Originally based on farming, the village's main industries other than tourism are now fishing and fish farming.

But people don’t just go ahead and build themselves a home, in the middle of a lake, they must have a serious reason. And the reason for the existence of Ganvie can be traced back to the 18th century, when a peaceful African tribe, the Tofinu, tired of running from the slaver tribe of Dom Homey, decided to build themselves a home, on Lake Nokoue. The Dom Homey believed a terrible demon lived in the lake, and their ruthless warriors dared not set foot in its waters. The Tofinu had finally found their peace. But fast forward to present day,and the people of Ganvie are still reluctant to go on solid ground, although the threat of slavery is only a distant memory. They’ve grown accustomed to living on the water, and wouldn’t abandon their unique lifestyle, for anything.

Ganvie’s 3,000 buildings include a post office, a bank, a hospital, a church, and a mosque. The village school is one of the few buildings not on stilts; it’s located on a patch of dry land big enough for kids to play soccer after class. Residents are currently bringing soil on to the lake to make a second island, which will serve as a cemetery. This unique African village is completely sustainable, and the only time villagers go ashore is when they want to sell their fish.

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We went to a beach resort for lunch at Casa del Papa, not without a few difficulties as our bus got stuck in the sand and need the combined efforts of a mob of locals to push it clear. The beach resort was well done, and the rooms seemed to be above par for this part of the world. Our lunch was so so, and the service a little lacking, but a pleasant stop none the less. Chris enjoyed a dip in the pool, and I even managed one myself.

The Gate of No Return is close to the hotel. It is a massive, arched gateway, some 50 feet high, stands alone on the edge of one of the loveliest beaches in West Africa. It is a striking - and in many ways a beautiful - structure, facing out across the Atlantic Ocean towards South America. Etched across the top of the arch are two long lines of naked, chained men disappearing into the sea. Called the Gateway of No Return, it is a monument to the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were forced into slave boats on this beach, never to return. It was built in 1996 with UNESCO money. Whilst the slave trade existed in its terrible forms in this part of Africa, I was not convinced that the truth was being told in this being the spot where the shipments of slaves commenced. It seemed very unlikely that thousands of slaves would have been taken off a shore without a harbour, and threatened by a an onshore wind.

There are in fact many 'Gates of No Return' - forts and prisons built by the slave-trading nations that dotted the West African coastline during the four hundred plus years of their trading. These 'gates' represented - both literally and symbolically - the last (prison) gates through which many millions of slaves passed before being transferred aboard ships anchored offshore, the large majority of them condemned never to return to their African homelands again.

The monument comes at the end of a two-mile trek from Ouidah, where the slaves were held, to the sea, from where they were shipped to the New World. Today Ouidah is the spiritual capital of Benin, with a thriving culture centred on the voodoo religion. But once the very mention of Ouidah invoked fear among the local population

Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá is a small fortress built by the Portuguese in the city of Ouidah. The Fort remained under Portuguese control from 1721 until 1961. The fort had an important impact in Benin, greatly contributing to both the Portuguese and African slave trade. Following the abolition of the legal slave trade in 1807, the fort, which had before been one of the major slave ports, gradually lost its importance and although Portugal continued to claim it as one of its possessions, formal occupation and administration were abandoned on several occasions. The fort was reoccupied by Portugal in 1865. In this period it served as a base for a brief Portuguese attempt to create a protectorate in the Kingdom of Dahomey of which the city of Hweda (Ajudá – Ouidah) was part (1885–1887). Until its annexation by Dahomey (which had been a French colony prior to its independence) in 1961, São João Baptista de Ajudá was probably the smallest recognized separate modern political unit, occupying an area of 5 acres. According to the census of 1921, it had 5 inhabitants and, at the moment of the ultimatum by the Dahomey Government, it had only 2 inhabitants representing Portuguese sovereignty, who tried to burn it rather than surrendering it. When the fort was captured, they were hastily escorted to the Nigerian border and expelled from the country.

The fort's restoration was later paid for by Portugal. The fort is a small square with towers at the four corners. It comprises a church and officers' quarters. The Fort of São João Baptista de Ajudá now houses a museum. Bruce Chatwin’s book The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) is a fictional retelling of the life of Francisco Félix de Sousa, the Sousa family founder in Benin and that of his powerful local descendants, dealing also with the subject of slave trade with Brazil. I found the fort less than authentic, and the "museum" was not well done, probably best forgotten this one

We also went to the beginnings of Voodoo in Ouidah, and the sacred forest. This is where the first Voodoo Prince died and it is believed his spirit inhabits one of the oldest trees. The small forest used to be off limits to everyone except those who had been inducted into Voodoo. But then a trickle of tourists started arriving in Benin and a fence and ticket booth went up. Inside local artists have produced sculptures of the various Voodoo gods, most of which look as if they would be more at home in the local fairground. The forest is dominated by huge ancient trees, as well as the sculptures and woodcarvings representing Vodun deities. One large Iroko tree is said to be the site where king Kpassè, founder of Ouidah, turned into a tree to escape his enemies.

After Benin, our next port of call was in Togo

On to Togo

African Trip