Before 1975, the Republic of Benin was known as Dahomey, its French colonial name. Three years after the coup that brought Major Kérékou to power, the name was changed to the People’s Republic of Benin, reflecting the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the new government. After the collapse of the Kérékou government in 1989, the name was shortened to the Republic of Benin.
In the pre-colonial period, Dahomey was the name of the most powerful kingdom on the Slave Coast, which extended along the Bight of Benin to Lagos. Today Benin includes not only the ancient Fon kingdom of Dahomey but also areas inhabited by many other groups.
The nation’s lack of cultural homogeneity is due to geographic factors and a history that has included waves of migration, competition between pre-colonial kingdoms, four centuries of commercial relations with Europe, and the impact of colonialism. In addition to language and ethnicity, there are divisions along lines of occupation and religion.
The country has an area of 43,483 square miles (112,622 square kilometers). It shares borders with Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Togo. There are five distinct geographic zones. In the south, coconut palms grow on a narrow coastal strip broken by lagoons and creeks. In the north, a plateau of fertile iron clay soil interspersed with marshy areas supports oil palms.
The central area is a wooded savanna with some hilly areas. The Atacora mountain chain in the northwest is the area of greatest elevation, while the northeast is part of the Niger river basin. Most of the country has a tropical climate with a dry season from November to April and a rainy season from May to October. Rainfall and vegetation are heaviest in the south.
The country is divided into six departments containing eighty-four districts. The capital is Porto-Novo, but the seat of government is in nearby Cotonou, the largest city.
The current population is estimated to be about 6.5 million and is concentrated in the southern and central regions. The growth rate is high, and 48 percent of the people are less than fifteen years old.
French is the national language, and English is taught in secondary schools. There are about fifty languages and dialects. Most people speak at least two languages. Fifty percent of the population speaks Fon; other important languages include Yoruba, Aja, Mina, Goun, Bariba, Dendi, Ditamarri, Nateni, and Fulfulde. Approximately 36 percent of the population is illiterate.
The flag first flown after independence was green, red, and yellow. Green denoted hope for renewal, red stood for the ancestors’ courage, and yellow symbolized the country’s treasures. In 1975, the flag was changed to green with a red star in the corner. In 1990, the original flag was re-established to symbolize the rejection of Marxist ideology.
Although several ethnic groups are assumed to be indigenous, migration that began four hundred years ago brought Aja-speaking people (the Gbe) into the southern part of the country, where they founded several kingdoms. The Yoruba presence in the southern and central regions also dates back several hundred years. The Bariba migrated west from what is now Nigeria and established a cluster of states. In the northwest,
several indigenous groups remained independent of Bariba control.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to make contact at Ouidah (Whydah) in 1580s; Dutch, French, and English traders followed. The coastal communities became part of an emerging trans-Atlantic trading system.
In the seventeenth century, slaves became the most important commodity, traded for manufactured items. At first the trade took place with coastal kingdoms, but the interior kingdom of Dahomey later conquered those kingdoms. Although a tributary of the Yoruba kingdom Oyo from 1740 to 1818, Dahomey dominated the regional slave trade. Traders dealt directly with the royalty of Dahomey, who continued to sell slaves to Brazilian merchants after the 1830s. Merchants and travelers wrote about the power of the Dahomean monarch, his army of “amazons” (female warriors), and ceremonies that included human sacrifice.
The French presence and influence increased after 1840 as a result of commercial and missionary activity. Tension with France increased as competition between European imperial powers escalated. France engaged in three military campaigns against Dahomey, and in 1894 King Behanzin surrendered and was exiled. By 1900, the Bariba had been defeated and the new boundaries had been determined. From 1904 to 1958, Dahomey was a colony in the federation of French West Africa.
Colonial rule forced the people to accept a new system of central administration, heavy taxation, forced labor, and harsh laws. France conscripted men to fight in both world wars. By the end of World War II, the economy was weak and growing discontent and was difficult to manage.
After World War II, France followed a policy of increased representation and autonomy. During this period, a triumvirate of leaders emerged who would dominate national politics for decades. In 1958, Dahomey chose independence, which was declared in 1960.Hubert Maga was elected as the first president. His term was interrupted by a military coup in 1963, the first of six in the next nine years.
National Identity: Political turmoil before and after independence was not conducive to the formation of a national identity. The Kérékou regime and the seventeen-year experiment with socialism stabilized the country under a central bureaucracy. In the early years of his rule, Kérékou’s called for the creation of a nation less aligned with French commercial and cultural interests. After the government adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology in 1974, a rhetoric of national unity and “the revolution” permeated the media and government propaganda, but even today national identity is secondary to ethnic identity for much of the rural population.
Ethnic Relations : Beninese recognize about twenty socio-cultural groups. In some cases, a cultural cluster is associated with one or more of the ancient kingdoms. The Fon (founders of the Dahomey kingdom) are the largest group. Their language is closely related to that of the Aja and Goun, and there are close ethnic ties with those groups as a result of shared pre-colonial history. Lines of cleavages create constantly changing northern, southern, and south-central coalitions of leaders who vie for control of limited resources and political power.
The Afro-Brazilian community in the south is descended from European traders, Africans who lived near European trading establishments, and traders and returned slaves from Brazil.
The educated peoples of the more urbanized southern region have dominated the nation’s political and economic life. The teachers and civil servants who were given posts in the north were considered to be as foreign as the Europeans.
Benin is also home to Fulani herders known locally as the Peul. These herders move their livestock over long distances in search of grass. Even when they become sedentary, the Fulani maintain a unique cultural identity. Many of them serve in the military.
More than 40 percent of the population lives in urban environments, primarily in Cotonou. Cities have a mixture of modern and colonial architecture. Although some Cotonou residents live in multi-story apartment buildings, their neighborhoods usually consist of walled compounds. In small towns and villages, new houses tend to be built from concrete block with metal roofs, but many are constructed from mud bricks and roofed with thatch. Large towns have both mosques and churches, and every town has at least one open-air market.
Food in Daily Life:. Even in many urban areas, cooking is done outside or, when it rains, in a separate room or shelter. Women and girls cook family meals, although more young men are learning to cook. Because many homes do not have refrigeration, most people go to the market several times a week to purchase food.
The basic meal consists of a staple starch prepared as a sort of mush, eaten with a sauce that contains vegetables and meat or fish. Food is prepared at least twice a day: at midday and in the evening. The morning meal may consist of warmed-up leftovers from the previous evening’s meal or food purchased from roadside vendors.
In the south, rice, corn, and manioc are the primary starches; millet, sorghum, and yams are preferred in central and northern communities. Sauces may contain okra, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, eggplant, peppers, and other vegetables. Legumes may be made into side dishes. In the marshy areas, carrots, green beans, and lettuce are being incorporated into the diet.
Beninese also eat many varieties of tropical fruits. Traditionally, palm wine was produced in the south, while millet beer was brewed and consumed by the northern people. Today alcoholic beverages are likely to be imported.
Smoked, dried, or fresh fish is likely to accompany a meal in the south, while beef is more common in the north. Goats, sheep, and poultry are found throughout the country. Poor people often eat meals with no protein. “European” foods were introduced during the colonial period. Many young people perceive the traditional diet as monotonous and want to eat more expensive and often less nutritious imported foods.
Children and adults buy snacks from roadside vendors. Men without female family members to cook for them often eat in makeshift outdoor restaurants. In the cities, French cuisine is available in restaurants.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions: Weddings, funerals, and holidays always involve eating. The Muslim feast day of Tabaski is celebrated by eating mutton, and families save to purchase a large sheep. Items such as pasta and canned peas are purchased by rural dwellers to eat on special occasions.
Basic Economy :The country is self-sufficient in food production, despite the increased production of cash crops. About half the population is engaged in agriculture, and traditional systems of internal trade still function to move food from one area to another. The lack of passable roads in rural areas makes it difficult to transport agricultural products to market. About nine hundred thousand people face intermittent food shortages.
Fishing is concentrated in the south, and pigs are raised by Christians. Most cattle are raised by the Fulani herders.
During the socialist period, the government encouraged agro-business initiatives and increased production through rural development programs
Traditional Benin applique cloth; these are associated with the ancient Beninese cultures of Dahomey.
such as cooperatives, but farmers’ incomes remained low. Forced to sell their products to government managed companies at artificially low prices, farmers were forced into additional subsistence agriculture to feed themselves.
In the last decade, increases in subsistence and cash crops and growth in manufacturing and industry have led to a higher economic growth rate. However, structural adjustment programs negotiated with the World Bank and the International Money Fund after the collapse of the socialist government have involved painful austerity measures, and in 1994 the currency (the Communate Financier Africaine franc or CFAF) was devalued.
Land Tenure and Property: In the pre-colonial period, access to land was primarily through lineages and clans. However, private holdings existed before the colonial period as a result of gifts from kings to their supporters and purchases from lineage groups.
Inheritance : .Patterns of inheritance vary according to the customs of individual groups; while national law permits women to inherit and own land, in patrilineal societies land is likely to be inherited by brothers and sons.
Commercial Activities; .Agricultural products and consumer goods are sold wholesale and retail. Consumers can purchase goods at retail outlets for international import-export companies. Small stores called boutiquessell consumer goods and processed foodstuffs in most towns; many are run by Yoruba or Lebanese trading families. Modern stores are found only in the larger cities. Most people still depend on open-air markets to buy not only food but textiles, clothing, furniture, and manufactured goods. The informal economy is large.
Historically, women have played an important role in trade, and many women attempt to engage in commerce in addition to household or wage-earning labor.
Major Industries: .After the fall of the socialist government, many inefficient industries were privatized. Most manufacturing is geared to processing agricultural products and import substitution of consumer goods. There has been increased foreign investment in cotton gins, but most industrial concerns operate at low capacity and serve the local market.
There are deposits of gold, oil, limestone, phosphates, iron ore, kaolin, and silica sand. Oil production has not been successful. The tourism industry will also require financial investment.
A hydroelectric power project on the Mono River is planned, and there is a project to build a natural gas pipeline.
Trade ; Cotton, crude oil, palm products, and cocoa are the major exports. Major imports include textiles, machinery, food, and agricultural raw materials. After independence, France continued to be the main destination for exports. Other current trading partners include Brazil, Portugal, Morocco, and Libya.
Division of Labor: In rural areas, the division of labor is usually clearly prescribed, with specific tasks assigned to men and women. Children are expected to help with chores. In polygamous families, the division of labor among co-wives is precise. The eldest wife is likely to have the time to pursue commercial interests.
Classes and Castes ; The system of social stratification has its roots in the pre-colonial kingdoms. Kingdoms in the south included royal and commoner families as well as slaves. At the top of the hierarchy was the ruling group of the Bariba, followed by a class of Bariba cultivators. Next came the Fulani pastoralists, and on the bottom were the Gando, the slaves of the Wasangari. Colonization broke the power of the traditional rulers, but social status is still partially determined by a person’s family roots. Wealth is another way to gain social status, and those who become wealthy through commerce are held in high regard.
One of the most significant social divisions is between the educated urban elite and the rural population. During the colonial period, educated Beninese in other states were expelled. Some found work in the bureaucracy at home, but many moved to European countries. The career goal of many students is to become a civil servant, although structural adjustment programs have reduced the civil service sector. The objectives of the new national employment program include developing the private sector and encouraging expatriates to contribute to the economic development process.
Symbols of Social Stratification; The dress, manners, activities, and worldview of the urban elite set them apart from other segments of society, and their lifestyle often is emulated by the people in lower classes. Speaking French, wearing Western-style clothes, eating European foods, living in a house with a tin roof, and listening to modern music distinguish a person who is “civilized.”
Government .; Political instability has resulted from the inability of leaders to gain support outside their regional bases. Benin was the first country in the 1990s to make the transition from a dictatorship to a multiparty democracy. Under the new constitution, the president is directly elected to a five-year term and is limited to two terms. The president chooses the members of the cabinet. Members of parliament are elected to four-year terms. The National Assembly meets twice a year.
Leadership and Political Official: .Dozens of political parties have been formed since 1990, and the ability to negotiate alliances is essential to political success. Elections in the 1990s exhibited old patterns of patron-client relations, ethnic and regional fragmentation, brittle and shifting alliances, and isolated incidents of violence.
Social Problems and Control: The crime rate is low, and most disputes are resolved by local leaders. Few civilians have access to guns. Theft is a problem,
A woman selling baguettes at a market in Cotonou. Many Beninese homes lack refrigeration, necessitating almost daily trips to the marketplace.
and many wealthier homeowners hire a night watchman.
Military Activity; Military activity has been limited to domestic operations, and civilian rule has been toppled several times by factions of the military.
Poverty has prevented the state from addressing the nation’s health and educational needs, and it has relied on foreign aid and assistance from international organizations. Adjustment programs was initiated after the collapse of the economy in 1989 limited the state’s investment in health and social development. The National Family Planning Association was founded in 1972.
Division of Labor by Gender; .In farming communities, men do the heavier tasks such as clearing land. Women help plant, harvest, and process many of the food products. Women carry wood and water and are responsible for household tasks involving food and children. Women are active in local and regional trade. The degree to which women work as healers and ritual specialists varies between ethnic groups.
The Relative Status of Women and Men; Although women in the Dahomey kingdom could increase their wealth and power as part of the royal palace organization and often served in primarily male occupations, the general pattern has always been for women to be socially and economically subordinate to men. The 1977 constitution conferred legal equality on women, but this was ignored in practice. Currently 65 percent of girls are not in school.
Marriage ; In the past, most marriages were arranged by families, but individual choice is becoming more common, especially among the educated elite. A couple may have both civil and traditional ceremonies. The wife joins her husband’s family, or the new couple may relocate. Marriage is nearly universal because remarriage occurs quickly after divorce or the death of a spouse. Although co-wives in polygamous marriages are supposed to get along, jealousy is not unusual.
A fishing village on stilts. Ganvie, Lake Nokoue. Fish is more common as a daily meal in the southern part of Benin.
Marriage may involve the transfer of money or goods to the bride’s family. After a divorce, re-negotiation of bride wealth may be necessary, especially if there are no children. Because women marry into a patrilineal descent system , the children belong to the father. Because wives do not become part of the husband’s kin group, marriages tend to be brittle.
Kin Groups ; Kinship ties involve loyalty as well as obligation. Outside the immediate family, the lineage and the clan are the most common descent groups. Kin are expected to attend important ceremonies and provide financial aid. Kin networks link members in urban and rural areas. Children may be sent to relatives to be raised, but fostering sometimes results in country relatives being brought to large cities to work as domestic servants.
Domestic Unit ; The average household contains six persons, but extended families and polygamous households may be much larger. Often close relatives live in the same vicinity in separate households but function as a cooperative economic unit.
Infant Care ; Infants are carried, often on the mother’s back, and most are breast-fed. Children are cared for by siblings and other family members when they are not with the mother. Babies sleep anywhere, no matter how noisy it is.
Child Rearing and Education ; Children are expected to be obedient and to show respect for their elders. Children learn gender-appropriate tasks early, especially girls. Most children have few toys and amuse themselves with simple games. It is estimated that 8 percent of rural children work as laborers on plantations and as domestic servants.
The educational system is modeled after that of France. School is free and compulsory for seven years beginning at age five. However, many families cannot afford uniforms and supplies or need their children’s labor. It is recognized that education is the key to social advancement, and most parents sacrifice to send their children to school.
Good manners include taking time to greet people properly, using conventional oral formulas. Upon entering or leaving an appointment, it is appropriate to shake the hand of each person present. People who are well acquainted may greet each other by kissing on the cheek. Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are discouraged, but men frequently walk together holding
This Benin village cooks food communally in a large pot. Most cooking is done outdoors, even in urban areas.
hands. Offering food and drink to visitors is a key element of hospitality, and to refuse is considered rude. Many people eat in the traditional style, using the fingers of the right hand. It is considered bad taste to eat with the left hand or offer another person something with it.
Religious Beliefs :. About 15 percent of the population are Muslims, and 15 percent are Christians, mostly Roman Catholic. The rest of the population follows indigenous systems of belief. Vodun (voodoo) was taken with the coastal slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean. Some Vodun spirits were borrowed from the Yoruba religion, and Vodun involves divination and spirit possession. These supernatural powers help believers cope with illness and infertility and provide a philosophy for living.
Death and the Afterlife : In indigenous belief systems, ancestors are considered to remain part of the community after death. Shrines honor the ancestors, and offerings “feed” to them. Among the Fon, circular metal sculptures on staffs called asenare made for each deceased person and kept in the family compound. In some communities, funerals involve a sequence of rituals before the person is considered to have made a complete transition to being an ancestor.
The birthrate and maternal mortality rate are high. Malaria and diarrheal dehydration are endemic. Only half the population is vaccinated. Over three-quarters of the population does not have access to primary health care. AIDS is straining the health care system. The rates of infection is three times higher in rural areas. People often employ more than one system of healing. Even those who have access to an infirmary or clinic may visit herbalists or other healers.
The major state holidays are New Year’s Day (1 January), May Day (1 May), and National Day (1 August).
Support for the Arts :. Support for the arts and humanities is limited by poverty of the nation.
Literature .: Benin has produced many scholars and writers from the educated urban class, such as the novelist and historian Paul Hazoumé and the philosopher Paulin Houndtonji.
Graphic Arts :. The arts include fine craftsmanship in iron and brass and cloth appliqué banners associated with ancient Dahomey.
There is only one post-secondary institution, the University of Benin in Cotonou. The university serves as a base for international research teams, and its faculty members have produced important scholarly contributions. About twelve thousand students are enrolled.
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