Benin // 54-project

I'm embarking on a 54-week project wherein I study one Africa country each week. No rules or limits on what I study or seek to learn, just trying my best to learn more about each country. I feel that in African studies the focus is usually placed on certain countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, etc) or certain events (colonialism, the Rwandan genocide, apartheid, etc), so that people interested in Africa might know a lot about a specific region or time, but not have thorough knowledge of the continent. I am hoping to remedy this situation, that I have at least found in myself, by means of this project.


Up next: Benin! A small, club-shaped country slivered between Togo and the giant of Nigeria to it's east. To the north, it shares its border with Burkina Faso and Niger. Here's a map to show exactly where it is, since location is quite vital in understanding the history of Benin:

The Kingdom of Benin began in the year 900 as groups of Edo people began to cut down trees and make clearings in the rainforest. Over time, these groups of families gave way to a kingdom. The kingdom was called Igodomigodo. It was ruled by a series of kings, known as Ogisos, which means ‘rulers of the sky’. In the 1100s there were struggles for power and the Ogisos lost control of their kingdom.

The Edo people feared that their country would fall into chaos, so they asked their neighbour, the King of Ife, for help. The king sent his son Prince Oranmiyan to restore peace to the Edo kingdom. Oranmiyan chose his son Eweka to be the first Oba of Benin. Eweka was the first in a long line of Obas, who reached the peak of their power in the 1500s.  Gradually, the Obas won more land and built up an empire. They also started trading with merchants from Europe. By the 1600s the Obas began to lose control of their regime due to the increasing pressure of the neighboring Kingdom of Dahomey, of Fon lineage (Fon is one of the main languages spoken in Benin to this day).

The Dahomey Kingdom was known for its culture and traditions, which is still recognized today. Young boys were often apprenticed to older soldiers, and taught the kingdom's military customs until they were old enough to join the army. Dahomey was also famous for instituting an elite female soldier corps, called Ahosi, "the King's Wives", and known by many Europeans as the "Dahomean Amazons". 

The kings of Dahomey sold their war captives into transatlantic slavery. By about 1750, the King of Dahomey was earning an estimated £250,000 per year by selling Africans to the European slave-traders. Though the leaders of Dahomey appeared initially to resist the slave trade, it flourished in the region of Dahomey for almost three hundred years, beginning in 1472 with a trade agreement with Portuguese merchants, leading to the area's being named "the Slave Coast". Court protocols, which demanded that a portion of war captives from the kingdom's many battles be decapitated, decreased the number of enslaved people exported from the area. The number went from 102,000 people per decade in the 1780s to 24,000 per decade by the 1860s. The last slave ship departed from the coast of the present-day Benin Republic bound for Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, that had yet to abolish slavery.

By the 1800s Benin was no longer strong or united. The kingdom came to a sudden end in 1897, when a British army invaded and made it part of the British Empire. Benin belonged to the British Empire until 1960. After, it became part of the independent country of Nigeria. Today, the Oba of Benin leads religious ceremonies, but he no longer rules his people. 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Dahomey had begun to lose its status as the regional power. This enabled the French to take over the area in 1892. A French protectorate is established in part of the kingdom in 1892; within a decade, at the end of the century, the entire region is under French control. In 1899 Dahomey is included in the newly established French West Africa, which starts 60 years of colonial rule until independence is gained in 1960. The president who led them to independence was Hubert Maga -- the independence route for Benin was quite different then other French colonies. Since France did not consider Benin as "France", but rather a French colony, the road to independence was much smoother and quicker. France agreed to granting independence to Benin on July 11 and by August 1 Benin had declared themselves independent. 

Like most countries forming a new government within a short amount of time, Benin faced a turbulent period following independence: there were six military coups between 1963 and 1972, with the last one leading to a communist leaning president. (This is the period when the nation's name is changed from Dahomey to Benin). Nowadays, Benin is seen as a stable democracy within Africa

The capital's name is Porto-Novo, which is of Portuguese origin. This means "New Port" and it was originally developed as port for the slave trade. Although it is the capital, it is the third largest city of Benin with a little over 200,000 people. Cotonou, a little southwest of the capital, on the coast, is the economic center of Benin and the seat of the government.

Vodun

It's hard to research Benin and not look into Vodun (known as "Voodoo" for us Westerners). Here's a quick video that I found on youtube looking into it:

Vodun is an entire religion within itself, which is something I didn't know very much about before this week. There are many different reports on how many people there are that practice Vodun in Benin, I read numbers from 19-60% of the population, but it seems either way to be quite integral to the culture. It was officially recognized by the government in the 1990s (there seem to be conflicting reports on the exact year for that).

The Vodun spiritual world consists of Mahou, the supreme being, accompanied with around 100 divinities who represent different phenomena, such as war and blacksmiths (Gou), illness, healing and earth (Sakpata), storms, lightning and justice (Heviosso), or water (Mami Wata). Vodun priests ask these gods to intervene on behalf of ordinary people. It is not a matter of black magic: people here do not stick needles into dolls to cause misfortune to their enemies -- this image seems to have arisen in Hollywood films. Benineses describe it as “a confession that encourages dialogue between people, between life and death, between religions”.  

To finish, here's a travel video a tourist made that I enjoyed watching: