Saturday, January 24, 2015


The Door of No Return, Ouidah, Benin
Once the French colony of Dahomey, it was a Soviet outpost from 1972 until 1991, when it became the Republic of Benin and replaced the ideology of Marxism with that of Aspirational Democracy. There is truly nothing to say about Benin. If you go to and click on "Local News" at the foot of the HomePage, you will find it has a useful guide to what national media are focused on in every country in the world, and is therefore worth looking at before you travel there; the big story at this moment of writing is “Shock gripped many in the city of Benin, Edo State, on Wednesday, when a 75-year-old man, simply identified as Elder David, slumped and died after several bouts of sex with an alleged married woman.” A minor outbreak of lassa fever is now over, and the Dutch are to assist in the renovation of the Port of Cotonou, the nation's largest city, and so near the capital Porto-Novo that the two will no doubt one day become one.The BBC profile notes that Benin is severely underdeveloped, and corruption is rife. It’s in Africa; what do you expect?

Well, what you don't expect, not from me anyway, is the statement "it's in Africa; what do you expect?" - the traditional European and American perspective, when not lining up more African leaders for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Unfortunately it is, on this occasion, what there is to say - or worse even, if I were to write Benin-Dahomey's history, which is one of being a central port of west Africa for the slave trade, or its present condition, in which about a third of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 per day, in which same-sex relationships are regarded as criminal behaviour, in which the death penalty is still in place (though the government ratified the UN treaty on its abolition in 2012, and is working towards implementation), and press freedom is decidedly restricted, despite a new law passed at the beginning of 2015 which means it is no longer automatic that journalists who criticise the government will go to jail (click here). Even LonelyPlanet, which will usually find something good to say about any country, headlines Benin with "the birthplace of voodoo" and "a pivotal platform of the slave trade for nearly three centuries", as though tourists are visiting Africa to look at iron chains and mangled corpses. "Benin is steeped in a rich and complex history still very much in evidence across the country" the LonelyPlanet page continues. Yes, that phrase again, that "complex history"; why can nobody confront the disgraceful calumny of the slave trade face on, and engage in truth and reconciliation so that both victor and perpetrator can move forward to a better future together, instead of hiding behind that formulaic cliché called "complex history" and then just burying it like an ostrich-head beneath the sands of time?

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