Geography Now! Benin
Have you been in Benin? Well, you have an invitation, to begin, in Benin. When in doubt, just use puns for the intro. SCORE! It’s time to learn Geography…NOW!!! Hey everybody, I’m your host, Paul Barbado. Today, we head to West Africa for the first time. But before we do, you know the drill. Let’s dissect the flag. The flag of Benin is pretty simple. It just has three colors: green, yellow, and red. The yellow and green represent the savannas and the palm groves located in the south of the country. And the red represents the: Say it with me! The bloodshed for those who fought for the country. In another respect, the flag also utilizes the the Pan-Africanist movement colors to signify the unity and strength of the people after colonization and pride in their identity. That was so much easier from Belize’s flag from last time! Alright, moving on. POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY Benin may be a very narrow and thin country, but don’t be fooled, it has a long and crazy history behind its location. First of all, Benin is located in West Africa below the Sahara line, bordered by 4 other countries: Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria. with the Gulf of Guinea to the south. People will tell you that the shape of Benin kind of looks like a key, I personally think it looks like a mushroom cloud explosion right before the top of the mushroom cloud expands and gets crazy. The capital is Porto-Novo, which means New Port in in Portuguese, despite the fact that French is the official language. And is located in the south, however, the seat of government, and most governmental buildings are located just a few kilometers southwest in the largest city, Cotonou located on the coast. The country is divided up into 12 departments, Which are further divided into 77 communities, originally the country had 6 but then in 1999 the original six split up and then Atakora, Plateau, Littoral, Djougou, Dogbo-Totta and Collines were added each with their own capital city. Although the coastline is only about 75 miles long or 120 kilometers. The majority of people live in the south within a 100 km of the coast. However, the North has some decently sized towns that hold their ground, especially in the Donga and Atakora districts, along the border by Togo, such as Natitingou and Djougou. In the far north it’s a disputed patch of land that they have with Burkina Faso near the Beninese town of Porga. Which has the world’s most boring airport ever. A large portion of the borders go along rivers – the Pendjari river for Burkina Faso, the Okpara for Nigeria, and further north along the Niger river Benin smiles at Niger and says: Haha! My side has lush green savannas and your side is jut dry desert! Most of Benin’s land borders aren’t really tightly marked or enforced giving people easy access from Nigeria and Togo. I mean, half the city in town of Ilara and Tuandi are split between Benin with Nigeria and Togo. And nobody really seems to care. As we’ll soon find out though, Benin kinda has a slight rivalry with its little brother Togo to the west. And you can kinda see that in the south where Benin is like: “Ehh, I’ll just take these extra 10 miles of coastline from you, because rather than take the main tributary to the sea, I’m gonna follow this small little creek that juts inland. Oh, and I’ll the are Grand Popo, because that’s what I am, Togo, I’m the Grand Popo and don’t you forget it.” Sorry Benin, but when you look at the map, it does kind of look like you pulled a geographical jerk move. But hey, you’re not the only one….*coughs* Namibia. Well, Benin may be small with some interesting perimeters, but what really counts is the secret special things in those perimeters, things that we’ll discuss in… PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY Alright, we connected the dots and now let’s color in this slab of sovereignty, shall we? Benin’s landscape is generally flat for the most part. The country gradually slopes a little bit upwards the further north you go, until you reach the Atakora mountaing range along the northwest border with Togo. With the highest point, Mount Sokbaro at only about 650 meters or 2,200 feet above sea level being in this area. However, generally there are 4 main geographical areas that divide up this country. The low-lying sandy coast with marshes and lagoons connected to the ocean, the plateaus with valleys and rivers where the majority of eco-regions and nature preserves are found in. Then you got the flat lands with the dry savannas and rocky hills further north and finally the Atakora mountain region in the north-west. Here’s a thing, Benin kinda has two-ish seperate climates, the south and the north. The south is generally hot and humid year round and gathers most of the rainfall, however in the north the closer you get to the Sahel… Oh wait, I have to explain what the Sahel is. The Sahel is basically this area of Northern Africa which is kind of like the transition region between the Sahara and the semi-arid savannas that are trying to like hang on for dear life and not become a desert. It’s like a desert-savanna battlefield. Join me savanna, become one with the desert. M-m, no, I wanna drink some water and like grow plants, y’all desert, out of my face, out my face! So anyway. Benin is located right here right below the Sahel line. This means that, as the Sahel and Sahara are battling it out, the noth part of Benin get some of the backlash in the form of a dry wind called the Harmattan. This wind dries up the grass and vegetation annually and leaves a veil of dust that hangs over everything. This is also the season where farmers burn the bush to help nourish the soil for next year’s harvest. Speaking of which, Benin is, as many African nations are, an agriculture economy in which food items and cotton make up the majority of the GDP. However, they do have one secret weapon: gold. Locked away in the veins of the Atakora mountains, close to the towns of Kwatena and Tchantangou, is Benin’s largest gold mines, which in recent years has contributed to as high as around 20% of overall exports, mostly from foreign investors like China and the European countries. See? That would’ve been a great tranistion for the friend zone, but we have to follow the format, again…! Here’s demographics. DEMOGRAPHICS The people of Benin, now this is where things get interesting… and then confusing… and then weird… and then a littel scary…and then back to interesting. First of all, the country has about 10 million people, or about the same size as Sweden. Now here’s where things get a little complicated. In terms of tribal ethnic groups, Benin has 42, the largest ones: the Fon, the Aja, the Yoruba, the Bariba, the Fula, the Ottamari, the Kabye and the Dendi. Speaking of which, Ajas and Fons in addition to Ewes and Ga-Adangbe tribes found along the coast of West Africa, make up the majority of tribes that were taken to the Americas from this region during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many of them headed to North America and the Caribbean as opposed to the Africans from the southern regions of Africa, like Angola and Cape Verde that went to the South American regions like Brazil and Venezuela. Also, although debatable, it’s been said that Voodoo originated from the Aja and Mina tribes whom brought the belief to the Americas, most heavily in Haiti. To this day, about 17% of the country still practices one variation or another of Voodoo. However, the rate is even higher in neighboring Togo with many in Nigeria as well, making the area unofficially known as the “Voodoo” coast. Traditional African religions, in addition to Voodoo, make up about half of the population, whereas Christians, mostly in the south, make up about 30% and Muslims, mostly in the north, make up about 20%. However, it’s kinda confusing because many Beninese people will overlap traditional beliefs with Christianity and Islam. Nominally about 42% identify as Christian, however doctrinally it’s more like a 12% fusion Christianity compromised buffer zone and the same goes for those who claim to be Muslims. Although small and less than 1%, the majority of the white population in Benin are mostly Christian missionaries who provide aid and long-term assistance, such as economical and medical help, as well as a few French nationals and their families left over from the former years before Benin gained their independence from France. Now, we don’t talk too much about history here, but in order to understand the people of Benin, you kind of have to understand where they came from. Eventually, the Fon people set up the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 17th century and they were very militaristic people group, sometimes referred to as “Black sparta”, in which they even instituted a female soldier corps, called the “Ahosi”. Eventually, the Portugese came in and the kingdom did business by selling war captives as slaves to the Portugese. After the slave trade died down in the late 1800’s, France swept in and nabbed the area re-calling it “French Dahomey.” Finally, in 1960 France let go and gave them their independence. So, as you can see, Benin kinda has both a Portugese and French influenced past. Now, here’s where things get a little strange. Remember in the Albania video we talked about the Sino-Soviet split? “Albania actually decided to side with China and not Russia. Which may have been a bad decision. The reason being because that made China Albania’s only ally in the world.” Oh man, the quality was so bad back then. I tried being my own camera man, I didn’t even have any audio equipment. Anyway during the 70’s, Benin for a short period of time was actually under a Marxist-Leninist based republic and kind of like Angola, remember? Benin was the only country in West Africa to do this and it kinda shocked the world. It all had to do with this guy: Mathieu Kérékou. If you wanna know anything about Benin, you kind of have to know this one guy. Long story short, he ran the country with an iron fist, he kind of ruined everything: businesses, education, banking. Then he tried to finance the country by taking nuclear waste from Russia and France – bad idea! And then finally after riots broke out from his own regime, for not having enough money to pay them, renounced Marxism and finally in 1990 a new constitution was complete and the modern day republic of Benin was born, kind of, I mean the first real free and fair election kind of happened in 2006, but still, they’re working on it. How did all that happen in a span of, like, 11 years? Other people were involved – people we’ll talk about in… FRIEND ZONE Benin has a quirky unexpected history in friendship. First of all, like mentioned before, they have historical ties to both Portugal and France. However, ties with France are much stronger, as the country didn’t engage in slave trading and the language became official. Nonetheless, most Beninese people take a “neh” approach to the French, not really enamoured by their presence, but at the same time not dwelling on a drama of being occupied in the past either. After independence Benin took a strange move and decided to side with the Soviets. After independence the USSR jumped in and coaxed Benin by being one of the first to recognize their sovereignty. It built up relations fast, and sent ambassadors and finally, that’s when Mathieu Kérékou started a military coup and took over driven by Soviet influence Marxist ideologies to rule the nation. Various coopeartion treaties were signed, the Russian navy had a port in West Africa they could use and even after the dropping off Marxism in Benin and fall of the Soviet Union, the newly established Russian Federation still maintained good relations and ties with Benin. Togo is kinda seen as like the “weird litte brother” that Benin kind of rolls their eyes at. Culturally and historically they’ve been to close through thick and thin. They both speak French and were part of the French Empire, although Togo was under Germany for a while. And they both share some of the same tribes, like the Aja and the Mina tribes. Nonetheless, Benin considers themselves very different as a whole and claims Togolese people are way too superstitious, especially in the large population of Voodoo adherence with the strange rituals and even building things like a temple devoted to snakes. When it comes to their best friend however, more or less Benin would probably say Nigeria. In fact, Benin depends on Nigeria for the majority of its export sector and trade. Parts of Benin were historically part of the Nigerian Yourban tribe Oyo Empire and to this day tons of Yourbas live in Benin. In conclusion, as small as the country is, Benin’s story is gigantically laided with empires, kingdoms, colonies and gold. Keep writing that story Benin. Stay tuned, Bhutan is coming up next!