Benin is a West African nation located between Togo and Nigeria on the Atlantic Coast. Its relatively peaceful transition from colonialism to democracy has led many to cite it as a political model for the continent.
Benin was originally known as Dahomey, which was first used as the name of a powerful kingdom that arose in the region during the 17th century. The Kingdom of Dahomey invited comparisons to ancient Sparta for its military traditions, including an elite, all-female fighting corps called the Mino, or Dahomean Amazons. Its conquest of surrounding areas provided it with large numbers of war captives, which the country turned into wealth through the Atlantic Slave Trade; however, it eventually waned in power, possibly through the antagonism of neighboring tribes, and was subsumed into the French West Africa colony in 1899. A mere 60 years later the country regained independence, but faced a long period of political turmoil that ended in the 1972 coup of Marxist leader Mathieu Kérékou, who gave Benin its present name. After his closed-market policies led to an economic collapse in the 1980s, Kérékou gradually introduced capitalist and democratic reforms, and following elections in 1991 became the first sub-Saharan African dictator to peacefully surrender power to a democratically elected successor, Nicéphore Soglo.
Despite its political progressivism, Benin’s economy remains largely underdeveloped, with recent growth having been offset by rapid population increase. Agriculture remains the largest industry and primary source of exports; a substantial portion of the population are engaged in subsistence agriculture, and there is a large informal economy operating outside government regulation. The government has several plans to deal with these problems, with programs to attract investment and technology, renovate the agriculture sector, and promote tourism.
Benin has a lot to see, including wildlife parks, beach resorts, and the historic Dahomean capital of Abomey. With over 42 different ethnic groups present within its borders, a trip to Benin is sure to be an eye-opening experience. Most migration takes place within a regional context, but there is a sizeable community of non-African expatriates as well, many of whom work with aid missions, NGOs, and volunteer organizations. Although far from crime-free, Benin is one of the safest countries in the region for travelers, and is a great place to experience the cultural diversity and natural beauty of Africa.
French is the official language of Benin, but is not taught in schools until the secondary level, and seldom used outside of cities. Over 50 languages are current in this small country; the most common ones are Fon and Yoruba in the south, where the majority of the population live, and Bariba and Dendi in the north. Travelers are advised to find out what languages are spoken in the areas they plan on visiting, and learn at least a few phrases in several of them. In addition, speakers of Yoruba, Fon, and other African languages should be aware that spelling in Benin may differ from that in other countries, and brush up on the local orthography before departing.