Monday, February 22, 2010

Benin, West Africa

Benin is a little sliver of a country that few people have heard of and few people care much about. It’s certainly not on the tourist track and one can’t get many insights about it on the pages of travel pubs. I went there to visit a Princeton in Africa Fellow at the UN World Food Program.

I have been wanting to go to West Africa for a long time now and Benin was as good a place to start as any. In fact, Benin was filled with rich sites and experiences and had quite a lot to offer. Benin is the place voodoo comes from and was home to one of the larger slave ports. Its Northwestern region has dramatic landscapes and is home to a group of people called the Somba and their homes, Tata Somba houses, have a particularly interesting design that brings traveler to see and study them. It’s also an interesting place to begin to explore French colonial culture and see that they French are keeping a strong grip on the Francophone countries of West Africa.

I can’t shed a lot of light on Benin’s basic stats, but although it is a very poor it remains stable and growing slowly. It has a fledgling democratic government and is slowly try to meet the needs of its people. Little things showed signs of promise likes many water pumps along the side of the road for people to get fresh water and more signs of improving housing and some rural electrification. Benin has few valuable natural resources and has few exports beyond agriculture, but it does have a big deep water port and makes money that way.

What I particularly loved about Benin’s people in comparison to Burkina Faso where I also visited were the men who wore traditional African fabrics. All the color was amazing. The unfortunate reality of most places in Africa is that they have been drowned in our used clothing that we all have donated to Goodwill. That clothing is sent in bulk to Africa where it is sold cheaply in the markets and that has pretty much destroyed the demand for local tailors and stamped out men’s traditional dress, but in Benin African fabrics are still widely visible.

All in all my quick trip, felt like a great way to start to get to know West Africa.

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