“The snakes are not bad, they do no harm” - the Vodoo adept repeats. And indeed – although Natascha was quite nervous before our visit to the Python temple in Ouidah, she even likes the soft snakes curling around her arms.
In February we spent around two weeks traveling through Benin and found it a calm, friendly, and quite hassle-free country. Even the children shouting at the sight of rare Whites (yovo), without fail: „Yovo yovo, Bon Soir, yovo yovo, Bon Soir! Ça va bien, merci!“, were hilarious more than annoying.
One evening, in Abomey, we stand behind the music troupe and watch the main square in front of the temple. Voodoo dignitaries of different temples and orders are seated in front of us, and it is towards them that perhaps 200 extravagantly-clad Voodoo adepts are dancing and twirling. There’s a choreography behind the movement of the skilled dancers, but on the other hand it is obviously a ritual and not a show, not even for the benefit of the seated bonzes.
Voodoo is recognised in Benin as an official religion, just as Christianity and Islam, and everyone we meet (including Christians and Muslims) is eager to explain that Voodoo here is not about black magic, but about good behaviour, ancient rituals, and positive wishes, and that all the religions respect each other. Quite often the Voodoo temples are situated just next to churches and mosques. Presumably, the government’s decision in the 1990s to upgrade Voodoo also had a positive effect on Christian-Muslim relations.
Nine years ago, we spent some time in Senegal and Mali and remember these countries, especially Senegal, as quite aggressive and demanding in terms of patience, and endurance of heat, dirt, and crammed spaces. To our surprise, in Benin we were often only 4 passengers in a shared taxi (instead of up to 7 plus children in a regular sedan in Togo).
The food was another pleasant surprise: We had a lot of fresh and incredibly sweet pineapples which fruit vendors in the street skilfully cut up in a bag without ever touching the fruit part itself – you even get toothpicks, so you don’t have to touch the bites with your own, probably dirty, hands! And, at least in the big cities, there were vegetarian restaurants with tofu dishes!
Moreover Benin also offers a number of sightseeing places – perhaps not the world’s top-priority must-sees, but it was enough to keep us occupied and provide some structure to our days and the trip as a whole. Those included a wide range of very different historical buildings: from crumbling colonial houses to construction styles influenced by Brazilian immigrants, who “returned” to Africa after the abolition of slavery, to traditional royal housing compounds.
We especially enjoyed our visit to Ganvié near Cotonou, a whole village built on stilts in a lake. Further in the North, the Ottamari people have been building their tata houses like small fortresses, with round huts and storage houses all on top of the main house’s flat roof.
Our original motivation for being interested in Benin as a travel destination in the first place, however, was unattainable, and we knew that even before we arrived in the country - we had first seen the spectacular Benin Bronzes in an exhibition in Tokyo, long ago: Warrior sculptures, bronze heads, and square bronze plaques with images from the Royal Court of Benin, most dating from the 16th to 19th century. It doesn’t really matter that these kings were based not in today’s country named Benin but in the City of Benin in what is today Nigeria. The city was sacked and looted in the 19th century, and practically all the famed bronze sculptures ended up in museums in Berlin and London.
We went to see some of the most beautiful pieces which are currently exhibited in the Bode Museum, Berlin. And, a few more were exhibited in the decidedly worthwhile (if crammed) International Museum of African Art (Musée international du Golfe de Guinée) in neighbouring Togo.
Costs of backpacking in Benin for 13 days
With total costs of just below 800 € for the two of us inside the country (plus the air ticket from Europe to Lome/ Togo and visa costs of 75 Euro p.P.), Benin was not extremely cheap but quite affordable. More often than not, we opted for mid-range accommodation (around 20 €). Long-distance transport was cheap and reasonably comfortable, but we also spent some money on entrance fees, on tourist guides and on a 4x4 to Pendjari National Park.
Read also about our visit to the Pendjari National Park, a UNESCO site in Northern Benin (LINK):
+++Our trip to Benin was not sponsored in any way; everything was organised and paid for by ourselves.+++