Two Capitals as Different as They Could Possibly Be

Yes, the last week of my looong journey finally arrived. After visiting the rather remote areas in southern Benin, I went to Cotonou, Benin’s capital in everything but name. Having the main port, it is the economic center of the country and you can really feel the vibrant buzz. Actually there is nothing special here, the only aspect Cotonou offers is an authentic and honest glimpse of a typical African capital, bustling and full of energy. Busy traffic is omnipresent and streets are overcrowded, filled with insane drivers competing for the pole position at crossroads or traffic lights. It is loud and very dirty, a lot of construction work is going on, but all buildings are made pragmatically and just seem to fulfil some practical mean. Except advertisement, concrete, antennas or electrical connections mainly frame and pattern the streetscape.

Even at the lagoon or in the small “vons” (unpaved, sandy paths around the market), it is difficult to find some quietness and take a rest, since the atmosphere is vivid and there is always something going on. Many Lebanese live here, they own restaurants, work in supermarkets or run a tailor business. Although Beninese will tell you that they all practise voodoo, Islam appears to be the most present religion. At every hour of the day, you will see Muslims praying directly on the street. They wash, roll out a carpet towards Mecca, kneel down and apparently don’t care about the pedestrians, vendors, moto-taxis and trucks passing along. Continue reading

On the Traces of the Dahomey Kingdom and the Route of Slaves

First of all I must admit that I am far from being an expert on the following topics, and definitely I do not want to offend anybody with what will come next. I really liked travelling through the Black Continent and especially West-Africa is an area where I want to come back again in future. Yet it is surely true that when discovering these countries – in my opinion – there are not so many historical sites to see as in other regions like South-America, China or India. In fact, Africa’s history comes down mostly to early tribes and former regional powers, then colonialism and independence and afterwards today’s political, economic and social situation. Often the current societies lack a bit of an own characteristic past determining their proper culture and distinguishing them from their neighbors. Of course, there are a few exceptions and luckily Benin is one of them.

Around 1625, one of the chiefs of the numerous principalities in nowadays’ Benin settled in Abomey, conquered the neighboring kingdoms and founded the Dahomey Dynasty. For almost three centuries, Dahomey was one of the most important forces in West-Africa and the European colonial powers (mainly Portugal and France) fearfully had to reckon with this fierce empire. They rather avoided the capital city of Abomey and built-up the slave-trade ports of Ouidah and Porto Novo. Having its peak in the 19th century, approximately ten thousands slaves per year were shipped to Brazil and the Caribbean. The Dahomeyan Kings actively took part in this flourishing market and grew rich by selling countrymen to traders. They exchanged them primarily against canons and guns and used those weapons to pillage the surrounding areas for extending their land and acquiring new slaves again. At the very beginning of the 20th century, the French eventually colonized the Kingdom of Dahomey and forced the ultimate King Béhanzin to sign a treaty, which gave the French full administrative power over the former empire and led to the formation of the Protectorate of Dahomey. Béhanzin was sent away into exile and the colonial period lasted until Benin’s independence in 1960. Continue reading