With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
Benin, like most parts of Africa, is home to several tropical diseases unfamiliar to people living in more temperate and sanitary climates. However, with adequate preparation, and a sensible attitude to malaria prevention, the chances of serious mishap are small. To put this in perspective, your greatest concern after malaria should not be the combined exotica of venomous snakes, stampeding wildlife, gun-happy soldiers or the ebola virus, but something altogether more mundane: a road accident. Within Benin, a range of adequate (but well short of world-class) clinics, hospitals and pharmacies can be found around Cotonou and other major towns. Facilities are far more limited and basic in rural areas. Doctors and pharmacists will generally only speak French, although at major hospitals in Cotonou a good English-speaking doctor can normally be found. Consultation and laboratory fees (in particular malaria tests) are inexpensive by international standards – so if in doubt, seek medical help.
People new to exotic travel often worry about tropical diseases, but it is accidents that are most likely to cart you off to hospital. Road accidents are very common in many parts of Benin, so be aware and do what you can to reduce risks: try to travel during daylight hours and refuse to be driven by a drunk. Probably the biggest danger you face in Benin is while swimming in the sea, particularly during the wet season, when the water is rough and the currents strong. Many people drown each year and the so-called ‘lifeguards’ at Grand-Popo are nothing of the sort. Unless you are a very strong and experienced swimmer in rough waters then keep well away.
Benin is a very macho society and women travellers, especially those travelling alone, should expect some unwanted attention. In almost all cases this will be limited to men trying to start conversations with you, officials using their power to have more of your company than is really needed, and general whistling and cat-calls. Sexual assault or rape against female travellers is very rare. Women should be careful if out in bars and clubs alone at night in the bigger towns, but the risk is really no greater and in fact normally less than you would face at home. However, things may change as tourism increases, and it’s certainly sensible to listen to local advice about any areas where violent (or petty) crime is rife. Female hygiene items are only reliably available in Cotonou and possibly Parakou.
Travelling with a disability
Benin would be a very hard country for travellers with a disability to travel in. People will go out of their way to try and help you, but the simple fact of the matter is that there are no disabled facilities, pavements are non-existent, roads and paths rough, and elevators are only available in a few topend international chain hotels in Cotonou. These same hotels are the only ones where you might find mobility-impaired rooms available. For further information, the UK’s gov.uk website provides general advice and practical information for travellers with disabilities preparing for overseas travel.
LGBTQ+ travellers should be very discreet. As with almost all sub-Saharan countries homosexuality is deeply – sometimes violently – frowned upon and most of sub-Saharan Africa simply does not believe that lesbianism exists. On the positive side, it’s common for men to hold hands as a sign of friendship and for travellers (foreign or Beninese) of the same sex to share hotel rooms (but not beds), and so as long as there are no public displays of affection (other than hand holding), then few people would likely realise.
Travelling with children
Benin’s small size and generally reasonable roads and fairly comfortable hotels means that it’s one of the better West African countries for (very) adventurous family travel. However, it definitely suits older children (ten years plus) more than young children. Younger children are likely to find it too hot and humid and the towns are hardly child-friendly.