Benin - Background information

Natural history 
People and culture


The history of Benin is a complicated, confusing and poorly recorded subject. One of the main issues facing a writer trying to put across the basic historical facts is that, firstly, no-one has really done much research into the matter and secondly, and more importantly, the basic historical facts are simply not believed by most Beninese. Therefore the writer’s research will be going well, everything falling neatly into place, when suddenly one of the main historical characters turns into a bunny rabbit or vicious lion, or some other incident occurs that’s equally unlikely to stand up to a history professor’s scrutiny. This leaves the writer with a dilemma. Does he or she stick to the dry facts even if big chunks are missing due to a key player transforming himself into a lizard and hiding from his enemy inside a woman’s vagina? Or does he or she just do away with the, it has to be said, often dull, history professor’s true fact and just focus on the popular history? For really history is what you make of it and this history of magic, gods and strange creatures is, after all, the people’s history and the one that is recited in day-to-day conversations and has shaped the culture of the nation.

Natural history

Benin boasts two integrated protected areas, which together cover a huge swathe of the north and northwest of the country. These two parks are Parc National de la Pendjari, which is the easier of the two to visit, and the little-explored Parc National du W. Both of these parks form part of a greater, trans-frontier W-Arly-Pendjari protected area, which co-joins parks in Niger and Burkina Faso and creates West Africa’s largest intact – and most important - savannah ecosystem. In addition to these two parks there is a number of forest reserves throughout the country, although currently most of them have no meaningful protection, tourist access or reliable wildlife surveys.


Kob, Parc National de la Pendjari, Benin, J Van de Voorde Kob are the most common large mammal in Pendjari © J Van de Voorde, African Parks 

Several large mammals typically associated with Africa simply do not occur in West Africa, for instance zebra and wildebeest; while many other large mammal species have been driven to, or at least close to, extinction in West Africa in recent historical times, notably giraffe (with only one very small herd left in Niger) and African hunting dog. Within Benin, the status of almost all large mammal species is precarious. That said, Benin is home to what is just about the last great savannah ecosystem in West Africa and, at the fabulous Pendjari and W national parks, it offers the best opportunities for viewing large mammals in all of West Africa, with a wide variety of large mammals present including several sub-species never seen in eastern Africa. As a bonus, at certain times of the year many of these animals are easily observed. 


Crowned crane Benin Markus Mayer, ShutterstockThe crowned crane is one of Benin's most striking birds © Markus Mayer, Shutterstock

Nobody could say that the big mammal presence in Benin is disappointing, but the real crowning glories are the birds. Stuffed full of endemics and on the migration routes of hundreds of others, West Africa draws naturalists for its birds above all other animals, and Benin is no exception. Currently Benin is almost untapped by twitchers, at least those from English-speaking countries, who prefer Ghana for obvious reasons. In fact the birdlife of Benin is fairly similar to that of Ghana though without the tropical forest attractions. The two main climatic zones of the country, the dry savannahs and light woodlands of the north and the thick green tropical vegetation of the south, mean that many very different species are able to exist here.

People and culture

Egungun Voodoo, Benin, Laurent NillesAn Egungun Voodoo spirit © Laurent Nilles

Small though it is, Benin manages to pack an awful lot of tribal variety into its compact form. Within its 11-million-odd citizens are over 20 different tribal groups, each with a distinctly different history, language and culture.

Voodoo and Beninese culture

Voodoo might well be the least understood and most demonised religion in the world. It is also extremely complicated for a Westerner to understand. For a start there is no Voodoo equivalent of the Bible, and its customs, legends and theology are not written down by religious leaders. In fact, solid factual information on Beninese Voodoo, the original form of the religion, is very hard to come by.

Benin is a highly religious nation. Although the Voodoo religion as such is actually followed only by the Fon people of the south and centre of the country, religions that go by different names elsewhere in the country, or even the entire continent, may well be based on the same principles. Voodoo, or whatever name it goes by elsewhere in Benin, permeates every aspect of its followers’ existence, so that writing about it means also writing about wider areas of Beninese life. 

Voodoo is not alone in Africa as a religion based on natural forces, so any examination of it is best started with a look at the general principles behind most African ‘tribal’ religions. There are hundreds of them, but most follow the same basic principles, which are:

  • There is one Supreme Being who is the creator and controller of all life.
  • The creator has a number of lesser gods, spirits or other forms to aid him in watching over all life. It’s normal for each of these ‘lesser’ gods to have a particular job to do, for example controlling rainfall. People speak to these lesser gods through prayers, sacrifices and rituals, and the lesser gods communicate the messages on to the Supreme Being.
  • Everything in the universe is a part of the whole and everything is linked. There is no distinction between the sacred and the non-sacred.
  • Humans are not perfect; and suffering, sickness and death are all a part of the cycle of life and are delivered as a punishment for sins that have offended the gods. Some of these sins can be amended through rituals, prayers and sacrifices.
  • All life is communal, even those who are dead or as yet unborn are part of the living community. This means that the living must interact with the spirit world and keep the dead and the unborn happy.

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