“The snakes are not bad, they do no harm” – the Vodoo adept repeats. We are travelling in Benin, where Voodoo is an official religion. The Voodoo practitioner is a perfectly respectable and trustworthy person. And indeed – although Natascha was quite nervous before our visit to the Python temple in Ouidah, she is unperturbed. In fact, she even likes the soft snakes curling around her arms.
In February we spent around two weeks travelling in Benin and found it a calm, friendly, and quite hassle-free country.
Yovo yovo, Bon Soir, yovo yovo, Bon Soir! Ça va bien, merci!“,
Even the children shouting at the sight of rare Whites (yovo), without fail, were hilarious more than annoying.
A voodoo ceremony
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 sit in front of us. 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 an official religion in Benin, just as Christianity and Islam. Indeed, 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. They also stress 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.
Friendly people we met travelling in Berlin
Nine years ago, we spent some time travelling 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, on our trip in Benin we were often only 4 passengers in a shared taxi (instead of up to 7 adult travellers plus children in a regular sedan in Togo).
The food in Benin 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! Friendly passers-by would always help us to find a good place.
Brazilian influences in Benin
Moreover Benin also offers a number of sightseeing places. They are perhaps not the world’s top-priority must-sees, but it was enough to keep us occupied and provide some structure to our travel days and the Benin 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. The large buildings have small round huts and storage houses all on top of the main house’s flat roof.
The aim of our original idea to travel to Benin in the first place, however, was unattainable. 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. They are 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. Even there, Benin is not a sightseeing destination. 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 at a current exhibition in the Bode Museum, Berlin. And, we saw a few more at the decidedly worthwhile (if crammed) International Museum of African Art (Musée international du Golfe de Guinée) in neighbouring Togo.
During this trip we visited Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso, and liked Benin the most.
Costs of travelling in Benin as backpackers for 13 days
With total travel costs of just below 800 € for the two of us while travelling in Benin, the country was not extremely cheap for travellers. Nevertheless, it was quite affordable. Of course, we also had costs for the air ticket from Europe to Lome/ Togo and visa costs of 75 Euro p.P. More often than not, we opted for mid-range accommodation (around 20 €) while travelling in Benin. Long-distance transport in Benin, at least for backpackers, was cheap and reasonably comfortable. In contrast, we also spent some money on sightseeing entrance fees, on tourist guides and on a 4×4 to Pendjari National Park.
+++Our experience of travelling in Benin was not sponsored in any way. We organised and paid everything ourselves.+++
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