Benin: The Belly of History. (Tourism)

By Williams, Stephen | African Business, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Benin: The Belly of History. (Tourism)


Williams, Stephen, African Business


Although Benin may not be the most obvious tourist destination in West Africa, it is determined to improve infrastructure, attract international investment and increase tourist numbers. STEPHEN WILLIAMS was a recent visitor to this historically important country.

Benin, formerly known as Dahomey or simply the Slave Coast, has a history as colourful, complex and at times brutal, as any African country. Years of post-independence repressive Marxist command-economy policies have been reversed almost overnight, and today Benin enjoys the reputation of being one of the most stable economies in West Africa even if it that economy is almost totally reliant on cotton exports, and dependent on Nigeria for its energy requirements.

COTONOU

Cotonou is Benin's only international airport and commercial hub of the country. The city's modern port provides the region with an efficient alternative to the congestion at Lagos, just 100 miles to its east, and much of the import traffic is in transit to Nigeria.

Tourism is still a fledgling economic sector for Benin, but a new hotel in Cotonou is due to open in 2003 and will bring to three the number of international hotels in the city. It's rewarding to spend some time here - visiting the incredible markets (especially the Dantokapa, one of West Africa's largest and most important), and enjoying the lively nightlife and great African cuisine. There are only two major problems, the first in transport if you are at all nervous of riding pillion on a motorbike. This is a 'mobylette city the streets swarm with them, and finding car taxis can be a problem except outside the airport and international hotels. Secondly, the banking system is slow and it can be expensive in changing money.

Currently, the efficient airport is undergoing a major renovation exercise to improve the terminal facilities. This should attract more international airlines to serve the city and help boost tourist numbers. Benin may not be able to offer the classic sun, sea and sand holiday formulae, the Bight of Benin coastline being too dangerous with rip tides and currents to make ocean swimming safe. But what it can do is offer visitors a glimpse of a rich and varied African culture - and it has one of the best game parks in West Africa, the Pendjari National Park which it shares with its northern neighbour Burkina Faso.

Visiting the Pendjari would probably take a minimum of three weeks, but there are other tourist attractions closer by. With say a week to spend in Benin, I can recommend visiting Porto Novo, Ouidah and Abomey.

PORTO Novo AND OUIDAH

Cotonou may be Benin's commercial hub, but the country's capital is 30kms to the east at Porto Novo. The town feels almost provincial in comparison with Cotonou, and at first sight does not appear to offer much to the tourist. But it does have its charms, some fine architecture, and a trio of museums.

The Royal Palace of King Toffa, originally dating from the 17th century but frequently rebuilt since, is now the Musee Honme - a complex maze of baked mud and thatched roof buildings that once comprised the king's private quarters and assembly rooms within a walled compound. It's useful to visit the Musee Honme before going on to the Musee Ethnographique that exhibits many of the artifacts relating to the Kingdom of Porto Novo, and also has a comprehensive collection of masks, fetishes, musical instruments and costumes.

But save the most time for the Musee de Silva. This is a private museum celebrating Afro-Brazilian culture. Housed in a traditional mid-l9th century Afro-Brazilian home, a series of large rooms on the ground floor displays old carnival floats, and clearly illustrates the direct connection between voodoo ceremonial costumes and the neo-Christian festivities that 'converted' African slaves developed in the New World.

Upstairs are examples of Afro-Brazilian furniture in rooms that replicate the style of Brazilian plantation owners, with living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms. …

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