The currency of Benin is the West African CFA Franc. You may see it written as "F CFA" and you will hear it pronounced "see-fuh" or "see-fah". Officially it is the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA) Franc issued by the Central Bank of the States of West Africa (BCEAO). If you are looking for the exchange rates for their currency you will need to look for the symbol “XOF”. The 8 countries that use this same currency make up the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and they are:
Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sénégal and Togo.
The denominations are:
Coins 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 250, 500 francs
Banknotes 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 francs
Originally this currency was aligned with a parity value to the Euro – but this has slipped quite a bit. It is, however, externally convertibility as it is guaranteed by the French Treasury.
A few words of caution:
There is another CFA – issued by the Central Bank of the States of West Africa (BCEAO). It is called the Central African CFA Franc and you will see it listed as “XAF” in exchange rates. Theoretically they are exactly the same value, but the notes and coins are different. Don’t take Central African CFA from anyone. Also do not try and take any CFA home with you for exchange. Outside of Paris you may find it virtually impossible to exchange back.
Don’t expect to see to many 1 and 5 CFA coins. The 50-500 range of coins are extremely useful, especially when you haggle for prices. Try to only have 1000 and 2000 notes. 10,000 notes (about 15 Euro, $20) are a nightmare to get rid of.
Old notes that are falling to bits can still be used and people will accept them.
The flag of Benin was first adopted on 16 November 1959, but was not actually flown until 1 August 1960. Strange enough. It was re-adopted on August 1, 1990. A bit of a strange story. Benin gained independence from France 1960, as the Republic of Dahomey, the name of a medieval African kingdom. On November 30, 1975 a Marxist coup saw the country renamed the People's Republic of Benin and a new flag was adopted. The new flag was simply a green flag with a red star in the left hand or hoist side. Following multi-party election the ‘old’ flag was reintroduced on August 1, 1990 and the country was renamed simply the Republic of Benin.
The flag is comprised of a green vertical band at the hoist (left side) and two horizontal colors of yellow over red. The 3 Pan-African colors (open to interpretation) symbolise:
Green – Hope, or palm trees
Yellow – Wealth or the savannahs of Benin
Red – Courage or the blood of ancestors
I was surprised to see on the bathroom door of my room in Natitingou, a poster explaining how to use a condom with pictures and a pocket containing 3 free condoms.
It seems the government are, admirably, taking Aids and sexually transmitted diseases seriously and encouraging the use of condoms.
I found this a little strange and unusual in a tourist hotel…………then I found out some hotels rent the rooms by the hour for use with prostitutes.
Cotton accounts for about 40% of GDP in Benin and is grown in the North. There is a large movement towards organic cotton production which is better for the health of the farmers and a few international organisations are helping to develop this. Traditionally cotton working was a man’s job but recently more smaller farms and co-operatives have been set up to benefit women.
I didn't have any problems or issues at all in Benin with safety. I didn't walk anywhere alone at night but I did take a few late afternoon walks alone with no hassle at all.
In Grand Popo I walked through the old town, by the river and along the beach and a few people stopped me to ask my name and a few other questions but that's all.
In Cotonou I actually walked down the main road by the port, because I wanted to get a photograph and here nobody bothered me at all.
In the hotels I also never had a problem or felt in a situaion where I wasn't safe. I'm not saying you should take risks, but I felt this to be a reasonably safe and friendly country.
Despite the variety and abundance of food I was offered, and tried, in Benin I never saw Duck on a menu. I even ate pigeon and saw guinea fowl offered.
When I asked why, in a country with so many lakes and rivers, Duck was not a popular dish I was told that Ducks are sacred and it is not common to eat them. If ducks are crossing the road, drivers will stop to let them across.
In a country where most animals are eaten or sacrificed for Voodoo you really would choose to be a duck!
There are many proverbs in Benin. They were used by the elders to educate younger people and pass down their wisdom of daily life. Historically the proverbs would be illustrations rather than written. The proverbs of the kings were shown on the top of their Asen, the metal poles they carried.
The proverbs are well documented in the museums - one of the best displays is the huge applique in the museum in the old Portugese Fort in Ouidah.
Some examples are -
PICTURE: A cat eating a fish. MEANING: Do not employ a cat to sell fish - beware of the self interest of those you employ to do a job for you.
PICTURE: 2 birds trying to put their heads into a small pot. MEANING: There can only be one captain of a ship.
PICTURE: A drum and an angry spectator. MEANING: If you invite the drummer don't complain about the music.
PICTURE: An egg. MEANING: Your words are like an egg. Once they break you cannot take them back so think before you speak.
Drums were, and still are to an extent, an important method of communication in Benin and West Africa.
The drums were used in all important ceremonies – Voodoo ceremonies, funerals, praising the kings and communication with the ancestors. As well as important events they were used for everyday communication, for example to warn of a snake in the village.
The drums were constructed to imitate the sounds of the languages of the Fon and the Yoruba tribes and could be heard for many miles around.
There are different types of drums of various sizes. The Soto drum is very tall and the drummer has to jump up to play it. It was used to tell people of a death. The bereaved played with the right hand for the death of his/her father and the left hand for the death of his/her mother.
The serpent God Dan, one of the most popular gods, has his own drum played in his honour.
You can see examples of Fon and Yoruba drums in the museums in Porto Nuovo and Abomey, and if you are lucky enough to see a Voodoo ceremony you can see them being played.
The Asen is the metal pole with a decorative top that the Kings used to carry with them and it represents the ancestors.
Every year in Porto Nouvo descendants of the kings gather in front of the collection of Asen and hold a ceremony in honour of the ancestors. Each King had his own special Asen with a motto which is represented in the decorative top of his Asen.
King Akaba’s motif was a chameleon representing getting to the top of the tree, King Tegbesu’s motif was a buffalo to say that nobody can remove his coat, King Agadja saw the Europeans arrive during his reign and his motifs were a hut, a calabash and a cross to say accept other religions but don't forget the traditional religion.
Young children, whose families practise the traditional religion, often wear a bead belt around the waist. Pregnant women also wear them.
Birth, Life and Death are central to the traditional religion and the belt protects the women and the unborn child while she is pregnant and protects the small children, when they are young, from misfortune and disease.
You can see some of the young children wearing them in the villages and there are some good examples in the museums.
The main tribe in Benin are the Fon who originally came from the South but now make up about 40% of the population and are spread throughout the country.
The Yoruba are the other main tribe of the South and they came from Nigeria.
In the North the main tribe are the Somba.
The map in the picture is taken from the museum in Porto Nuovo and shows all the tribes of Benin and their locations.
In Benin the historical tradition dictates that when talking about certain things you must say what you want to convey in a different way! Everybody kinows what you mean - you just can't say it.
It was considered unlucky to say certain things, particularly regarding the Kings. If the king dies - he has not died but has travelled to Allada, the ancestral home.
The king does not eat – he worships the plate and he doesn’t take a bath – he refreshes his body.
Similarly with twins, if one twin dies he/she is said to have gone to the forest to look for wood.
There are many Christians in Benin and I saw many churches and cathedrals, as well as some mosques, but most people also follow the traditional religion of Voodoo. The Kings of Dahomey allowed the people to take up and practise Christianity but they never converted themselves and always followed the traditional religion.
The slaves returning from the Americas had mixed their traditional religion with the Catholic religion and some of their practices were integrated into the culture too.
The Celestial Christian religion was started in Benin in the 1940’s and has spread through West Africa with many followers. You can mainly see them in the South of Benin and are noticeable as they wear all white clothes. As it was Easter when I visited I saw many of them going to and coming from their services.
The main language in Benin is French with tribal languages also spoken – Yoruba and Fon. Some people speak a little English in the hotels but not much. And all the signs and descriptions in the museums are in French. If you are not French speaking I would recommend you get an English speaking guide. Most of the museums have an English speaking guide, and the standard of English they speak is very good. There is a lot of information in the museums, and it would be a great pity to miss out on the wonderful descriptions of history and culture. I had an English speaking guide, Alex, with me throughout my trip. He was excellent and really brought to life the history and culture.
Most of the people in Benin follow the traditional Voodoo religion, particularly in the South and in the villages. Voodoo is not the evil practice of sticking pins in dolls that resemble your enemy as we have been led to believe. It is a very complex system of beliefs based on the one god that created the world, called Mawa-Lissa (a woman!) and a system of lesser gods and spirits. These gods and spirits need to be kept happy in order for people to have good fortune and avoid bad luck and need to be communicated with regularly to keep the link between the spirit world and the living. Of course it is much more complicated than this, but this is a simplified synopsis of Voodoo.
You will see many temples dedicated to various gods as you travel around Benin and most of them are not grand but very small and simple. They have the name of the god or spirit they are dedicated to painted on the front, usually with a picture. Inside are carved figures, sometimes recognisable and sometimes not, depending on how old the temple is. In the Voodoo ceremonies the figures are coated with a mixture of palm oil and cornflour plus other ingredients, which builds up a coating over the years and makes the figures lose their original shape. The inside of the temples can also get very untidy with the left over debris of ceremonies.
It is very important to ask before you try to have a look inside or photograph a Voodoo temple. Often if you ask the people will be happy to let you have a look inside or take a photograph, but if you don’t they may get a little upset. After all they believe very strongly and these temples are very important to them so should be treated with respect.
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