Sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria, this strip of West Africa has faced the difficult challenge of forging national unity from a grouping of 42 ethnic groups spanning from the Islamic northern savannah to the green, forested Christian south. Prior to the colonial era, there was little exchange between the northern Bariba Kingdom, which goes back to the 7th century, and the kingdoms of the south, such as Dahomey, all of which served the more powerful Yoruba Empire. The one thing they did exchange was slaves, and as Europeans moved into the area, the Benin coast in the south came to play an important role in the European-run slave trade. Late in the 19th century, the French fought both Barabi and Dahomey to establish the colony of Dahomey. But while the French exercised great influence in the south, they had far less impact on the north.
Following independence in 1960, Dahomey suffered at the hands of a succession of military leaders, culminating in the 1973-1991 rule of Major Mathieu Kérékou, who renamed the nation Benin. Kérékou's Marxist-Leninist economics and his opposition to traditional authority figures proved disastrous. Nicéphore Sogolo became president in 1991, only to be defeated by Kérékou in 1996. The `90s have seen great improvements in Benin, both economically and in terms of the social climate.
Benin's two best known cultural exports are the much-misunderstood religion, vodou, and one of West Africa's best loved pop singers, Angelique Kidjo. Salsa singer Pedro Gnonnas has also made a name for himself internationally, especially since he teamed up with the pan-Atlantic group Africando. With Cotonou at last becoming music-friendly with clubs and small recording studios, Benin's musical gifts should come increasingly to the fore in years to come. Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org