www.bradt-travelguides.com UK-based travellers have long dismissed Francophone West Africa with an ‘Anglo-Saxon shrug’, and even adventurous travellers have tended to follow historical and linguistic ties when exploring the continent. However, with three new first editions about to hit the shelves, Benin being the first this week, Bradt Travel Guides are at the forefront of a new enthusiasm for West Africa.
Inhabiting the green dappled shadows of West Africa’s inner folds, Benin, formerly Dahomey, was once ‘a name whispered only in fearful awe by the citizens of the surrounding kingdoms, had enough chill to send a shiver down the spine of anyone who crossed its path’, as described by author and mystical surfer Stuart Butler.
Indeed the country’s past links with European slavers are overshadowed by an all-pervasive culture of Voodoo. During his research for the guide Butler describes, ‘spiralling through a world that became ever more strange; I ran from a god with horns sprouting from his back whose single touch would result in certain death, and took shelter in a room where sacred pythons crawled from every wooden beam. I sat in the shade as a witch battled her personal demons and a sorcerer slit the throats of puppies. I found myself surrounded by walking haystacks and dancing 8ft-tall chickens and was witness to a male circumcision ceremony. I surprised myself by kissing the ground at the foot of a Voodoo priestess and shyly asking a beautiful princess if I could sit beside her. I became an assistant in a magical duel between my travelling companion and a wizard, and I waited hours for a royal audience with a king who could become a bird and fly away above the clouds.’
In the safe and scientific Western world magic only happens in fairy tales but visiting Benin, or even reading a few chapters of the guide, might change your mind.
Benin includes necessary tips for avoiding malevolent Egungun (sorcerers) and correct etiquette to be followed upon meeting royalty. However, this ‘field guide to gods, ghosts and dead people’ is also a thorough and practical travel companion.
History from Benin’s origins in the sacred forest, through the era of slavery to the present day establishes an important context for any visitor. In-depth coverage of the country’s capital Cotonou combines with travel through the interior, including the wildlife of Parc National du W and de la Pendjari, the surf beaches (!), and stilt villages of the coast.
Stuart Butler is an English-born freelance journalist and photographer who has spent considerable time in West Africa. He has travelled extensively as a professional surfer and has interests in African history, cultures and wildlife which have provided a background to his research for this guide.