Northern Benin

When I think of wildlife it isn’t usually West Africa that comes to mind. However as these pictures show, there are interesting pockets of wildlife remaining in this region.

They were taken in the Parc de Pendjari, a large reserve in the far north of Benin. In just one night’s stay (a late evening visit to a waterhole and a rather more leisurely drive the next morning) I saw hippos, crocodiles, buffaloes, elephants, a lion, baboons, two species of monkey and lots of different species of antelope and gazelle. Not to mention a fair few birds including the beautiful scarlet and turquoise coloured carmine bee-eater.

The journey there took me through the Atacora mountains, a region inhabited by the Betammaribe people. They are known for their unique style of house – a kind of mud fortress, inside which they can keep their animals, their grains and themselves, hiding themselves in there away from the world in times of danger. This style was apparently developed during the time of slave raids from the neighbouring Dahomey people. I visited one (paying a small fee for the privilege) – very cosy although how they stand doing their cooking on a wood fire inside the house I don’t know, the smoke made my eyes smart and I had to escape that room quickly. It partly explains the high number of children in the region who suffer respiratory illnesses.

Until the 1970s these people lived a very traditional lifestyle, with little contact with the outside world. Then they got a blast of publicity in France, by someone who thought they had discovered the ‘real unspoilt Africa’, one result of which was that the authorities pressured them to at least put some clothes on … it seems that they felt some shame at the fact that there were near naked tribesmen living in the country. I can’t see why, personally, as many of these people are living a lifestyle which is far more in tune with their environment than the western lifestyles they are now expected to emulate.

I wonder if they will in time also pressure the people to stop applying the tribal markings that are so prevalent in this country. Outside of the capital, nearly everyone you meet has some kind of scarification on their face, which identifies their tribal origins. I also saw some interesting tattoos. In the north the women from the Peul tribe have lots of little tattoos all over their faces (as well as some fairly distinctive jewellery), and later in the central region I saw an old lady with various lines and dots tattooed over her chest, stomach and back – apparently something to do with her status within the voodoo religion.

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