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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Benin: Land of Ancient Kingdoms and Voodooism

Benin: Land of Ancient Kingdoms and Voodooism
(Sunday, 2 Mar 08)
We left Niamey on Sunday morning. We were very fortunate to have met Abdul Rahman, a great Nigerien driver who drove us to the Giraffe reserve at Koure on Saturday. Not only did we got along well and had many interesting discussions (- he's one of the few Nigeriens who spoke some English) but he was very helpful and not pushy for tips. He picked us up at the hotel at 3:25am for the SNTV bus station. When we arrived, we found that the 4am bus to Contonou (Benin) had been cancelled. We got our refunds back, then rushed to the EHGM bus company where we bought the tickets just before the bus left the station. What a near miss! And thanks a lot to Abdul Rahman. We tipped him very handsomely. Unfortunately, we also misplaced his telephone number and email in the mad rush. Maybe it's all fated.
The journey to Bohicon near Abomey (which was where we really wanted to go, about 3 hours from Contonou) took 14 hours, which was not too far from our estimate. It's on a regular coach, not a crowded bush taxi that would probably claim to go direct to our destination but would relay us from one bush taxi to another. We first travelled across the desert-dry savannah landscape surrounding Niamey and then later into the green rice fields along the Niger near the Benin border. It is said that 12.5 million people live in Niger but the place is just so dry and empty to imagine there is more than a few million out there. Perhaps most of the population live near the southern borders with Benin and Nigeria, where the land is more fertile. Niamey is nothing more than a city overgrown from its days as a forgotten French military outpost in the desert.
The border crossing wasn't difficult though chaotic. We had to walk over 1km across a bridge over the Niger once past the Niger immigration. The scenery was spectacular but we didn't take any photos (also because it was probably illegal to do so at such sensitive places) or even paused to admire the scenery, as we were anxious about losing our bus which had gone ahead past the Benin immigration.
The rest of the journey to Bohicon was uneventful though long. The road was paved and sealed, though narrow. There were long prayer stops for the passengers, most of whom were pious Nigerien Muslims. We entered the Muslim part of Benin but as we moved south, we saw fewer mosques and more churches. In fact, we passed the impressive and monumental basilica at Dassa-Zoume, built for pilgrims here to visit La Grotte Marial Notre Dame d'Arigbo, where the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared and performed miraculous deeds. We reached Bohicon at 6pm and Motel d'Abomey by 6:30pm. What a long day!
Benin is a smallish but slander country on the Guinea Coast of West Africa, whose geographic shape looked almost phallic to me. It was once known as Dahomey but a Marxist dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, changed its name to Benin in 1975. The name was retained even after the dictator converted to Catholicism after the fall of the USSR and dropped the "People's Republic" from the country's official name.
Benin is more famous for being the home of Voodoo. The real Voodooism is not the vicious black magic one sees on Hollywood movies but one devoted to the worship of deities and harmony with nature. Voodooism is officially the national religion of Benin and it is worshipped by more than half the Beninese population. Voodooism have spread from Benin across the Atlantic to the Caribbean when Beninese slaves were brought to work in the plantations centuries ago. We would visit some sites related to Voodooism during our stay in Benin.

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