About Benin

Benin is a country in West Africa, roughly the size of the state of Pennsylvania.  It is bordered by Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and has approximately 75 miles of coastline along the North Atlantic Ocean.  The country has a population of about 10 million people with most of the population located in two major cities; Porto-Novo on the coast is the capital and largest city, while Cotonou is the economic capital.  The official language of Benin is French, but Fon, Yoruba and many other languages are spoken.

Present day Benin is situated at the site of Dahomey, a West African kingdom that came to power during the 15th century.  In 1872, the region became a French colony, and achieved independence on August 1, 1960.  A series of military governments ended in 1972, when Mathieu Kerekou rose to power, establishing a government based on Marxist-Leninist ideals.  The free elections in 1991, which ushered in former Prime Minister Nicephore Soglo as President, marked the first successful transfer of power in Africa from dictatorship to democracy. The current President, Thomas Boni Yayi, was elected in 2006 and started a second term in 2011.  

Map of the Kingdom of Dahomy, 1793
Courtesy of New York Public Library

The Beninese climate is tropical, with average temperatures between 75 and 90 degrees. While the geography is relatively consistent, at an average 200 meters above sea-level, the north is semi-arid and the south is humid. 

Benin has significant religious diversity, with approximately half of the population observing animism or Voodoo, although this number is highly debated.  Roughly 30% of the population identifies as Christian and the remaining 20% practices Islam.  Fascinatingly enough, Benin is known as the birthplace of Voodoo, and many of the Voodoo practicing communities in the Caribbean trace their roots to Benin.

Currency in Benin is the West African CFA franc (XOF).  It is the common currency among 8 independent states including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. According to the World Bank, Benin is classified as a Low income country with a GNI (Gross National Income) of $790 per capita, which is below the average for Sub-Saharan Africa.  Benin's natural resources include limestone, marble, timber and off-shore oil deposits.  The country produces cotton, corn, cassava, yams, beans, palm oil peanuts and many fruits including bananas, pineapples, avocados, mangoes and kiwi. Industry is built upon textiles and construction.  Benin has been focusing more on tourism and information technology to attract more foreign investment.

Culture in Benin is deeply rooted in Voodoo tradition and French colonialism.  Popular Beninese include actor Djimon Hounso, filmaker Didier Chabi, composer Wally Badarou and singer Gnonnas Pedro.  Benin has a thriving musical scene and one of their most famous singers is Angelique Kidjo. I actually got to hear her perform when she received an honorary degree at Middlebury College in 2014!! Take a minute to listen to one of her most popular songs!

If you're interested in literature, "Snares without End" by Olympe Bhely-Quenum is one of the most cited pieces of Beninese literature.  The first piece of Beninese literature was written in 1929 and a strong oral tradition predates French as the predominant language. 

As a Health Volunteer, my work will focus on several different issues related to rural community health.  Benin has an HIV/AIDS rate of roughly 1% of adults aged 15-49.  Malaria is the most common cause of death among children under 5 years old. According to a UNICEF survey in 2013, roughly 15% of women have undergone FGM and the maternal mortality rate stands at 350 deaths in 100,000 live births, one of the highest in the world; the lifetime risk of death for pregnant women is 1 in 43. Access to improved water sources is limited to about 75% of the population and only 12% have access to improved sanitation.  Malnutrition affects almost 25% of children in Benin.

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